“I know you’re tired, that’s why we need to make another stop,” Principia said, grinning back at them. “It’ll just take a few minutes, but believe me, you’ll thank me tomorrow. I know a place that’ll be open this late—just gotta pick up the ground beans and a handpump press.”
“What the bloody hell are you on about now, you daffy knife-ear?” Merry groaned, trudging along behind her.
“Excuse you, that’s Sergeant Daffy Knife-Ear, private,” Principia said gaily. “It’s called coffee. We’ll be having it in the morning. Wonderful stuff! You’re gonna hate it.”
“Why do I have the feeling that’ll describe a great deal of my life in the near future?” Merry grumbled. Eyes on her boots, she barely came to a stop in time to avoid plowing into Principia from behind.
“This looks good,” Principia murmured, peering around. They had staggered to a halt on an arched footbridge crossing one of the city’s canals. Fairy lamps atop posts at either end kept it from being too dim, but it was still after midnight. The sounds of traffic from the bigger street half a block ahead were muted; it was completely dead in this neighborhood.
“Why are we stopping?” Casey asked blearily.
“Because I want to have a word with you ladies away from prying ears,” Principia replied, turning to face them. “Not suitable for the inn; the patrons there know how to mind their own business, but some things we can’t take the risk of being overheard. There are barely any people within the range of my hearing, here, and they’re all behind stone walls and asleep.”
“What’s so important?” Farah asked, looking more alert.
Princpia looked at each of them in turn, holding eye contact for a moment. “The truth is… This may seem rather cheap, since I was only just promoted, and that out of what we can all agree was a weird and twisty sequence of events. But in the days and weeks to come, girls, I expect you all to get thoroughly sick of me. We are going to work hard, and train hard.”
Merry raised a hand. “What if we were already sick of you?”
The elf ignored her. “The Legion’s normal course of training is one thing—we won’t be skimping on that, not because I am hugely a fan of it but because we can’t afford to. However, that will not be our focus. As was mentioned several times recently, this squad represents an intriguing balance of backgrounds and skill sets, and we are going to share them, ladies. Thieves’ Guild con artistry and street fighting, Shaathist wilderness skills, adventuring party tactics, Nemitite research methods and lore, Black Wreath spycraft… Anything and everything. Whatever you know that even might be useful to us, you are going to train your squadmates in. Much of this is religious in origin and directly applicable to our official mandate, but there’s more to it than that. We need skills—diverse, dangerous skills. We need to be the best, because we have a job to do over and above what Commander Rouvad wants from us.”
“What are you talking about?” Ephanie asked quietly.
Principia glanced around fleetingly, but was apparently satisfied with the lack of prying ears. She stared at her squad, her jaw set, and stated flatly, “We are going to destroy Basra Syrinx.”
There was a beat of silence.
“I’ve pointed out already that she will be coming for us,” Principia went on, “so it’s not as if we even have a choice. But that isn’t enough, ladies. I refuse to remain in the trap of defensive thinking. More than the need to fend her off, more even than the fact that that need alone will force us, eventually, to take an aggressive tack… She has to go. That woman is a monster. She’s broken in the head, has no feeling heart, and is in a position of considerable power. It cannot stand. For us, for Jenell Covrin, for everyone else that we damn well know she’s mauled even if we don’t know who they are. This needs to be done. Circumstances have decreed that we’ll be the ones to do it, so damn it, we’re going to do it well.”
“Hell yes,” Casey whispered, eyes sharp and alert now.
“We’ve got four months,” Principia stated. “After that point… Best behavior or not, Syrinx will be wanting a rematch, and she will get it. Whipping ourselves into shape will be good enough for our careers and standing generally that I expect us to be in a stronger position by then, but even if not… It doesn’t matter. What it comes down to is this: Either she is going down, or we are.”
All four of them stared right back at her, and one by one, nodded their agreement.
“Regardless,” Ravana said, leading the way as usual on the path back from class, “I do regret dragging you all into this. Needless to say, I fully intend to make it up to you. We are unfortunately stranded in the environs of Last Rock for the duration of the semester, but I would be delighted to host a vacation when class lets out this winter. Someplace pleasant, and relaxing! I’ve several ideas. In the meantime, perhaps the dorm can be made more comfortable by—”
“Ravana,” Maureen interrupted, her tone quiet but firm, “quit it.”
The group came to a stop, Ravana turning to regard the gnome with confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“Quit taking responsibility,” Maureen said, gazing up at her. “We don’t none of us answer to you; we make our own choices, as we did last night, an’ it’s frankly insulting the way you assume you’re the decider around here. And fer the luvva courage, quit tryin’ to buy us.”
The Duchess stared at her, mouth slightly open.
“Look,” Maureen said with a sigh. “I like you, don’t think otherwise. But you’re goin’ about this all wrong. You wanna make friends, be part o’ the group? Then be part of it. You might find that easier than bein’ in charge all the time, I bet. At the very least, it’s gotta be more relaxing. But that’s how you get people ta like you, not by showering them in shinies.”
Ravana finally shut her mouth, then shook her head ruefully. “Well, I am…appropriately chastened. It seems we’ve had this conversation once before, haven’t we?”
“An’ likely will again,” Maureen said in a more cheerful tone. “C’mon, the habits of a lifetime don’t just up an’ change. I expect you all t’let me know when I’m bein’ a dink, an’ I’ll do the same fer you. Without makin’ it personal.”
“That is, after all, what friends do,” Szith added with one of her private little smiles.
“And yay! We get to bond over cleaning rooms full of evil sludge!” Iris said with a forced, manic smile.
Ravana sighed softly. “I really do feel bad about that, though. Not that I intend to denigrate your own agency, girls, but… Well, it was my idea, wasn’t it?”
“Water under the bridge,” Iris said dismissively, waving her hand. “What I want to know is what we’re going to do if Addiwyn starts up again.”
“She never came back to the room last night,” Szith observed. “Whatever Professor Tellwyrn said or did, let us hope for the time being that it finally made an impression.”
Iris pursed her lips skeptically. “And if it didn’t? Because between you, me and the trees, I can’t see that unbalanced twit getting the point no matter what’s done to her.”
“Don’t underestimate Tellwyrn,” Ravana cautioned. “But in any case… If she resumes her campaign, we will consider at that time how to deal with it.” She paused, then smiled wryly. “With, ah…a bit more restraint, perhaps.”
“This is so you,” Mary mused, pacing in a circle around the frozen form of Aspen. “One cannot contest that it does the job. And all it cost was a staggering expense of power and the complete reordering of a small patch of reality.”
“It’s such a shame we don’t get the chance to catch up more often, Mary,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “How did you enjoy the Rail trip?”
“All right, enough!” Sheyann exclaimed. “We are going to have to work closely together to accomplish this, if indeed it can be accomplished. Let us establish up front that if we are to be successful, the personal barbs will need to be kept to an absolute minimum.”
“Quite right,” the Crow said pleasantly. “Oh, but Arachne! On the subject of personal history, I understand the young Aldarasi prince is currently enrolled in your institution.”
A ball of blue fire burst alight in Tellwyrn’s hand. “Now see here—”
Before she could get any further, Sheyann streaked across the room and slapped Mary hard across the face.
The fireball fizzled out; Tellwyrn and the Crow both stared at her in shock.
“We are not doing this,” Sheyann declared furiously. “I will not have it! Kuriwa, if you cannot manage to act your age I will treat you accordingly. Is that understood?”
The Crow blinked twice, then took a step back and bowed, first to her, and then to Tellwyrn. “You are, of course, entirely correct. Forgive me, Arachne, that was a jest in very poor taste. I assure you, I have no intention of interfering with any of your students in any way.”
“’Interfere’ is an interesting choice of word,” Tellwyrn said, twisting her lips sourly. “Elilial pulled that one on me recently. Leaves you room to be aggravatingly helpful.”
“Well,” Mary said with a placid smile, “I do have an interest by blood. And as we just established, blood, however dilute, is a connection to be respected.”
The Professor snorted. “Oh, I am not worried about Trissiny. If you want to go toe-to-toe with Avei, be my guest. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, because I do need to head off to class pretty soon. What do you think?”
Mary turned back to study Aspen, her expression growing pensive. “Tricky, as I am sure you know. I can prepare the rituals that will allow us to touch her mind. Sheyann, if you could contribute toward the general emotional contact with which our magic is good, to encourage calm and healing, that will grant me space and some flexibility to set up the far more advanced mental workings.”
“Of course,” Sheyann said, nodding.
“The hard part is going to be bridging the difference between her time frame and ours,” said Tellwyrn. “Eventually, I hope to establish a passive effect in the room that will enable us to do the work without me constantly having to ride herd on that. For the first few sessions, though, it will require a personal touch. I never automate anything until I am absolutely confident of its function.”
“Wise,” Mary said approvingly.
“And of course, the real kicker will be integrating that into your fae spells.”
“Indeed,” the Crow said, slowly rubbing her chin with a finger as she studied the immobilized dryad. “All right, I will take some time to prepare and confer with Sheyann while you attend to your students, Arachne. Before you go, however, I have some thoughts on the methodology we will need to use. To begin…”
Finally escaping the tense, empty conversation with her mother, Jenell practically leaped up the stairs and strode down the hall double time. Beholding the door of her room standing open, she picked up her pace even further, the long coattails of her dress uniform flying behind her, and whipped around the corner.
Her satchel was on the bed, open. Her father stood beside it, and in his hands was one of her books.
“Can I help you find something?” Jenell grated.
Colonel Covrin slowly raised his eyes, giving her a very flat stare, then hefted the old volume. He handled it gently, of course, despite his obvious displeasure with it; the Colonel was an established bibliophile who collected rare volumes himself. He often said that he would have been a Nemitite had he not gone into the Army.
“Athwart the Gods,” he said, glancing down at the book’s title. “Treatises on diverting and manipulating the attention of deities. Isn’t this volume banned, Jenell?”
“Depends on who you ask,” she shot back. His brows lowered menacingly, and she hastened to add, “It’s suppressed, not banned. The Universal Church doesn’t have the authority to outlaw books in the Empire.”
“And how did you manage to obtain a copy of a volume suppressed by the Church?”
She folded her arms, meeting his stare challengingly. “I can’t think of any reason you would need to know that.”
“Jenell,” he said quietly, “you would tell me if you were in some kind of trouble, wouldn’t you?”
She startled them both by laughing. “Are you serious, Dad? Since when do we have that kind of relationship?”
His mouth thinned to a line of pure disapproval. “What have you gotten involved in?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said curtly. “I am handling it.”
“As someone keeps reminding me,” she stated, “despite how generally disappointing you may find me, Dad, I’m still a Covrin. We don’t whine about problems. We end them.” Imperiously, she held out a hand, wordlessly demanding the book’s return.
The Colonel ignored that for the moment, lowering his eyes to study its battered old cover. “What problem?”
“One,” she replied quietly, “that I am going to look in the eyes when it realizes that I’m the thing that destroyed it.”
She could see him processing, and silently willed him not to come to the correct conclusion. Colonel Covrin was anything but stupid. If he figured out what was going on, no power in the Empire would prevent him from trying to rescue her. And his trying would ruin everything.
“This problem,” he said at last, lifting his eyes to stare piercingly into hers, “isn’t Avei, is it?”
It was all she could do not to sigh in relief. “No. Gods, give me a little credit. No, Avei will be the solution. It’ll just take some work on my part, that’s all.”
He stared at her for a long, silent moment, then nodded slowly and finally handed the book back. She immediately stepped past him, gently placing it back in her satchel, and slung that over her shoulder. “I’m heading out. I need to get to the Rail station and embark for Viridill. My sponsor is keeping me on as an attendant while on a mission.”
“Jenell,” he said as she started for the door. She turned to look back at him, and found herself unsure what to make of his expression. “I’m proud of you.”
Despite herself, despite everything, Jenell couldn’t hold back a smile. “That’s… I don’t think you’ve ever said that to me before.”
“Yes, well,” he replied with an awkward shrug. “I guess it wasn’t the case before.”
And just like that, the smile evaporated from her features. “Thanks for lunch, Dad,” she said with a sigh, then turned and strode from the room before he could respond.
She practically flew down the stairs, through the hall and out of the house, fearing her mother would catch and ensnare her in another of her empty conversations. She didn’t stop until she was at the corner, two full blocks down from the Covrin residence. There, she stood, waiting until a black carriage with the red and yellow stripes of the municipal taxi service approached, and flagged it down.
“Western Rail terminal south,” she said curtly to the cabbie as she climbed into the back.
“Right away, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat deferentially, then immediately faced forward again, palming the control runes and bringing the carriage back into motion.
She still wasn’t used to that. Jenell was long accustomed to being pretty and well-dressed, which commanded a certain kind of attention. Part of her regretted that men never flirted with her anymore, since she’d started wearing Legionnaire armor, but another part was finding the new treatment somehow sweeter. It was still an unfamiliar experience, being addressed with respect.
After glancing up to double-check that the cabbie’s eyes were on the road where they belonged, she carefully opened her satchel and studied its contents. Her father didn’t seem to have disturbed any of the books apart from the one… Even her personal reading was untouched, which she’d have more than half expected him to remark on. Ashner Foxpaw’s Exploits was so far outside both her previously established sphere of interest and the preferences of Avei’s Legions that it practically demanded comment. Perhaps he’d caught sight of the old copy of Athwart the Gods and hadn’t noticed. Luckily he’d not seen some of the other volumes she had in there.
That had been risky, and sloppy, and she could not afford to be either. Obviously her old room at home was not a secure fortress, and it was pure sentimentality that had made her assume so. She had to tighten up her game. If anybody else found the kinds of things she was studying… Gods, if Syrinx found them. She would invest in a bag of holding at the first opportunity, and never have these materials away from her person again.
Finally relaxing back into the seat, Jenell carefully pulled out the Exploits and opened it at her bookmark. There was time to get through maybe another chapter; traffic was dense at this hour.
Rather than the spot where she had left off, her eyes cut automatically to an increasingly familiar phrase, one Foxpaw was fond of using—it was the closest thing he had to a personal motto, it seemed. Jenell always found herself pausing a moment to let it sit in the forefront of her mind whenever she came across it. Due to her recent experiences, the idea resonated with her powerfully.
Not for the first time, she found herself silently mouthing the words.
“All systems are corrupt.”