“All right, here we are,” Principia announced upon their arrival at the quiet intersection. “Pair up and move out. You know your routes and your orders; meet back here in thirty.”
“Sarge,” Farah said hesitantly. “Are you…sure about this?”
Prinicipa raised an eyebrow behind her helmet. “Am I sure about going out on patrol? If you don’t feel like it, Szaravid, you’re welcome to tell the captain. No, wait, I just remembered I’m responsible for you dodos. The captain is not to hear of this. Move your butt.”
“I mean, splitting up,” Farah said doggedly. “What with the…you know, situation.”
“We’re in the middle of Tiraas, and the situation is annoying, private, not an immediate threat to life and limb. We’ve lived through those; you should know the difference. Besides which, we are all trained, armed and armored professionals.”
“Avelea, if your patrol partner is not moving by the time I finish this sentence, kick her in the…there we go.”
Ephanie grinned at Principia as she turned to follow Farah down the street. Casey nodded to her and peeled off in the other direction.
“She’s not wrong, you know,” said Merry, setting off after her.
“I know,” Principia replied. “That doesn’t mean we get to just do whatever. Off you go, Lang.”
She waited until both pairs were a few yards distant and moving without glancing back before crossing the intersection and setting off on her own route.
The city was just waking up. Tiraas never truly slept, but its activity went in patterns. The hours before dawn were always the quietest, when the night-dwellers had begun to finish their business and creep home but the more average citizenry were not yet up and about. Now, with the sun just barely peeking over the walls, the streets were lit both by the gray of dawn and the harsher glow of fairy lamps. Activity was present and growing, but still quiet, sporadic, and as often as not carried out by people who seemed half-asleep.
Principia exchanged nods with a few shopkeepers unlocking their doors, as well as some early pedestrians, and granted a few to several who didn’t acknowledge her. That was par for the course in a major city, though she had noted that people in general were more inclined to be friendly toward Legionnaires than other random citizens. It also seemed to mitigate the hostility that some felt toward elves, or at least the expression of it.
“Morning,” she said cheerfully to a pair of men in Imperial Army uniforms coming toward her on the sidewalk.
“Good morning… Sergeant,” one said politely, pausing to glance at her insignia. “What brings you out this early?”
“Same as you, I expect,” she said, coming to a stop, as did they. “First light patrol.”
“Oh?” The older man, with a lieutenant’s bars, glanced around. “Huh.”
“I guess not. Just never seen a Legionnaire patrolling without a partner before.”
“Well, it’s not standard practice, but my squad’s under-staffed at the moment and this is the shift they gave me.” She shrugged. “I just go where I’m kicked, y’know?”
“That I do,” he replied with a nod and a faint smile.
“We should move on, Talour,” said the other soldier gruffly, not looking at Principia. The lieutenant gave him a disparaging look.
“So, what’s his story?” Principia asked easily. “Doesn’t like elves? Not an Avenist?”
“I don’t—” The corporal whipped his head back around to peer more closely at her face, what was visible through her helmet. “Wait, you’re an elf?”
“Yeah, but keep it under your hat,” she said solemnly. “Nobody’s caught on yet. I’m hoping to make captain before they find out.”
Lieutenant Talour grinned outright. “Don’t worry about him, Sergeant. No one in the Army has a problem with Avei, and any who have a problem with elves keep it to themselves. Some of the lads don’t as much care for having other military forces active in the city, is all.”
“Not that spears and shields are any threat to a modern army,” the corporal added with just a hint of sullenness. “It’s the principle of the thing.”
“Huh,” she mused. “Well, I guess I can see that. The way I always figured it, though, you and I are in different lines of work.”
“Oh?” The corporal frowned.
“Well, if somebody were deranged enough to snatch a purse right in front of me, then sure, I’d deal with that. Ultimately, though, you lads are the ones charged with protecting the city. When the Silver Legions are sent to actually fight something, it’s something exotically evil, usually at the end of a very long trip. Here on the home front, we’re mostly to be seen. A reminder that Avei’s still watching over us all.” She smiled disarmingly. “Scenery, as one of my superiors recently put it.”
“I…suppose that makes sense,” the corporal said. Despite his grudging tone, he relaxed his posture slightly.
“Okay, I have to ask,” said the lieutenant, “and please feel free to tell me off if I’m crossing a line, but… Isn’t that helmet uncomfortable with your ears?”
“You cannot imagine,” she said fervently.
“Oh, I can imagine a lot,” Talour replied with a grin. “I’ve done tours at Fort Vaspian and Tidecall. My feet still aren’t dry. And have you ever tried drow cuisine? Bugs and mushrooms.”
“Yeah? Imagine, then, wearing a codpiece two sizes too small. Twice.”
He gaped at her. The corporal tried to smother a snicker behind his hand.
“They’re sensitive, is what I’m saying,” Principia added, winking.
“I…well. I’m sure I’ll find some use for that information,” he said, blinking.
“Got a use in mind?” Principia grinned. “Don’t start with flowers—give her candy. Chocolate if you can afford it. Elves hardly ever get real sugar at home.”
“We’d best move along,” said the corporal, now grinning openly. “Stay safe, Sergeant.”
“You too, boys,” she said cheerfully, offering a salute and resuming her walk.
They’d barely had time to recede out of earshot (theirs, not hers) when another presence materialized alongside her.
“That was very well handled.”
“Good morning, Gimmick,” Principia said without turning to face her. “How surprising it is to see you first thing on the very day after I last got rid of you.”
“My duties leave me mostly at liberty,” Saduko said pleasantly. “I do so enjoy the city at this hour. It was always my favorite time of day, even at home. I like the grayness of dawn, when there is daylight but before the true glow of the sun appears. The contrast with the city’s artificial lights is interesting.”
“I would never have taken you for a poet. So, what duties are these?”
“Few, specific and rather lenient,” said the thief with a shrug. “At present, I am to befriend Zanzayed the Blue on behalf of my employer. On behalf of Zanzayed I am to solicit your attention—he very much desires to speak with you. It is a veritable chain of secondhand befriendment. Is that a word? Befriendment? It seems as if it should be.”
“I’ve never head it, but Tanglish is forgiving, and evolves fast. I bet if you use it in public a few times it’ll catch on.”
“Splendid. In any case, after you have duly rejected Zanzayed’s vicarious advance of the day, I will once again be twiddling my thumbs, so to speak. Unless there is someone whose favor you would like me to solicit?” She half-turned her face toward Principia as they walked, smiling.
“Everyone I want to talk to, I already can,” Prin replied. “What, exactly, does Zanzayed want with me?”
“I do not know,” Saduko admitted, “and I am not curious. All I am told is that he wishes to speak with you privately. Beyond that, I very much hope to resolve the matter in one way or another before I am forced to become curious. Knowing too much about the affairs of dragons seems unwise, to me.”
“A strange perspective for someone who works for one.”
“I don’t work for him,” Saduko said with a thin smile. “I work for someone who wants me to get on his good side. You are Guild; you appreciate such distinctions.”
“You know, the fact that I’m Guild is at issue, here. The Guild respects the time I spend on duty with the Legion. Both cults do; they do not get into each others’ hair with me as a go-between. You are courting trouble, Gimmick.”
“I am not representing the Guild,” Saduko said mildly, “nor violating its policies. Yes, I have no doubt you have already initiated an investigation into me. Frankly, if the Boss orders me to leave you be, that will be something of a relief. It is an excuse which will satisfy both Zanzayed and my employer, and will spare me having to keep annoying you. A mere half-blood I may be, but where I am from, making a pest of oneself represents a contemptible failure of character.”
At that, Principia finally glanced at her. “Half…what?”
“And…? I’m sorry, but I can usually spot a demihuman. I must be losing my touch.”
“Ah, yes,” Saduko said, shaking her head. She smiled as she did so, however. “This is why I enjoy Tiraas; no one can even tell, and if they could, they would not care. No, I am entirely human, but only half Sifanese; my mother hailed from an even farther country, one not thought of kindly in Sifan. Kiyosan is not Tiraas; there is only one breed of human widely represented there, and they can immediately spot one with the wrong kind of blood.”
“I see,” Principia mused. “You’re being remarkably forthright.”
“You will see my reticence if you touch upon a subject I consider private.” Saduko shrugged again. “As I have said, it disagrees with me, being an imposition upon you. I would rather emphasize that I mean neither harm nor trickery.”
“A little selective openness, sure,” Principia nodded. “I know the tactic. What about your real employer, then? Who’s he? Or is that one more sensitive?”
“Alan Vandro,” Saduko said immediately, “also known as Webs. Are you acquainted with him?”
“I’ve heard the name. Both names. He’s got a rep. Isn’t he retired?”
“I believe he tried,” she said with amusement. “A person like that can never truly quit the game, though, any more than you could.”
“And so he sends you to risk your hide meddling with dragons, Avenists, and myself. Must pay well.”
They turned a corner, putting the rising sun to their backs. Saduko was silent for a long moment before speaking.
“He is a purist, dissatisfied with the Guild’s current structure. In Vandro’s opinion, the Guild has become far too centralized, too much of an institution.”
“Sure,” Principia said immediately, nodding. “He’s right about that; ever since Catseye was Boss. I’m not too worried, though; the Guild goes through cycles, same as everything else. I’ve lived to see two previous rises of bureaucracy. The Big Guy always straightens things out.”
“Ah, but ours is a hands-off kind of god,” Saduko replied. “When he wants something cleaned up, it is we who hold the brooms. I think Webs sees that as his duty, this time.”
“And you agree.”
“I was sent by the Guild to infiltrate his operation,” she said frankly. “For my efforts, I got this.” Saduko reached up to unbutton the collar of her shirt and tug it open, lifting her chin to display her throat. At the base of it, a pale of scar tissue line stretched across her windpipe above the collarbone, faded and only slightly ridged. The wound was either very old or had been heavily treated through magic and/or alchemy. “Oh, they paid me well, of course—but you and I both know the value of money.” Face now impassive, she carefully re-buttoned her collar and straightened her shirt. “I used to love to sing. I used to be able to. It is only because Alan Vandro expended his resources without restraint or hesitation that I am now able to speak. He did this even though he should have counted me as his enemy.”
“Man knows how to recruit,” Principia murmured.
“I know his flaws,” Saduko said curtly. “I know when I am being bribed; I am not blind. But this was a bribe I was pleased to accept.”
“Are you pleased to work for him?”
Saduko tilted her head, giving Principia a thoughtful sidelong look. “He is one of those men who has an innately poor opinion of women. You are acquainted with Jeremiah Shook, I understand; Vandro was his first trainer, and from what I have gathered, the source of some of his attitudes.”
“I see,” Principia said flatly.
“They are very different men, however. Whatever Vandro thinks of women, he does not discriminate professionally, nor speak disparagingly to anyone’s face. The man is professional enough to look past his prejudices, far-sighted enough to care generously for those in his employ and willing to extend mercy to fallen foes. A sense of honor covers a multitude of moral failings. I am content in his service, to the point that I care little what he thinks of my sex. Perhaps I would not fare so well as you in Avei’s service.”
“Now I have talked a great deal,” Saduko continued, her tone suddenly light. “What of you? Perhaps you can tell me why Zanzayed the Blue would be interested in you to the extent of—”
Principia dived forward, rolling nimbly into a doorway and bracing herself in a compact crouch behind her shield. Saduko broke off, staring at her in confusion, only moments later looking up to behold an enchanted carriage barreling down the street toward them. It was an expensive Falconer, or had been; a model several years old and with its body replaced by mismatched and clearly shabbier part, but the base enchantments were clearly fully functional. Functional, and performing up to the famous Falconer standards. The thing was moving at a speed that could only conservatively be called “unsafe.”
Saduko glanced back at Principia, then at the carriage, then finally pressed herself against the wall of the storefront as it drew abreast of them. It veered close to the sidewalk in passing, the side door flew open and a figure leaned out, which was the last thing she saw before a tremendous splatter of blue paint few out and over them both, coating Principia’s shield and most of Saduko’s torso.
Prin was rising smoothly to her feet the instant her shield had absorbed the impact. In a single rapid motion, she stepped out to give herself room, drew back her lance and hurled it like a javelin after the fleeing vehicle.
The weapon flew straight and true. As the carriage accelerated away, the lance zipped straight into the spokes of its rear wheel. It immediately slammed against the frame, locking the wheel and sending the carriage skidding to one side. There came a sharp bang and a burst of sparks as the wheel enchantment broke, and the wheel itself came flying off, sending the carriage to the street. Its driver tried to keep it going for a few more seconds, resulting in another shower of sparks as it dragged its rear fender along the pavement, followed by several more bursts of light and a prolonged noise like fireworks signaling a broken axle and subsequent cascade failure of the charms running it.
“And that’s something new to add to my list of shit not to try on an elf,” Principia said with belligerent satisfaction. “You okay?”
“W…why… I…” Saduko blinked and spat out a dribble of blue paint. She had been absolutely soaked; it covered her from chin to knees. Principia had paint on her boots and helmet, including one stray drop on her eyebrow, but most of the wet volley had been absorbed by her shield, where it now completely obscured Avei’s golden eagle.
The driver of the carriage had already hopped down and was skittering off down a side alley. Two more men struggled from within, one staggering as he wrenched himself loose from a strap around the arm which had kept him from falling out while he threw the paint. In moments, both were taking off after the first man.
“Hey,” Principia said more firmly. “Are you injured? Speak to me!”
Saduko twisted her mouth, finding an untouched spot on her sleeve on which to scrub her tongue. “Fleh. Vile.”
“I guess that’ll do. You should probably come back to the barracks with me,” said Prin, gently taking her by the elbow and urging her forward. “Get looked over by a healer and have a dose of potion. Depending on what the paint was made for, and from, it could be toxic. Lucky you didn’t take in much.”
“Does this happen to Legionnaires often?”
“I have to say, this I did not expect,” Principia said mildly. “C’mon, we’re falling behind.”
“Surely you don’t mean to chase them,” Saduko protested. “They have a substantial head start. And I know elves are fast, but you are weighed down by armor…”
“I am trusting my squad to have done their jobs, which will render chasing unnecessary,” Prin said smugly. “I assume it occurred to you that it was odd for Third Legion patrol routes to be posted in the public area of the temple, yes?”
“When would I have seen—”
“Gimmick, I’d love to play this game with you, but I really do not have time right now.”
Saduko paused in wiping paint off her face onto her remaining sleeve to give her to a disgruntled look. “Fine, very well. I presumed it was some manner of trap. Given the Legion’s nature, what we would think of as a noble con, one I could walk into and not trip so long as I did nothing manipulative or hostile. Did you not find me very forthcoming? You mentioned it specifically.”
“Yes, I’ll acknowledge my mistake there: it was you I expected to step into this. I’ll be very interested in learning who those guys are. Anything to add to that?”
Saduko’s expression grew even darker. “Merely that when you do find out, I insist on seeking some recompense for this. I don’t have so many clothes that I can replace whole outfits easily. And if you have never been struck by liquid moving at that speed, it stings.”
“Yes, that would be standard procedure. In here, this is where they went.”
“How could you have arranged a trap?” Saduko demanded, following Principia into the alley. “Surely you haven’t blocked…every…”
Principia drew her sword and the three men skidded to a halt as they tried to exit back the way they had come.
“So,” she said firmly, “that’s assault, and while I don’t exactly know the civil codes pertaining to the use of an enchanted carriage, I bet you just broke a bunch of them. Needless to say, you are under arrest.”
“We don’t answer to dragon-lovers!” one snapped. The voice was clearly female; this was the individual who had been driving the carriage. All three had made some effort at concealing their identities, with heavy coats, caps and scarves. The driver also had a thick pair of goggles over her eyes.
“Is that what this is about? Just who are you people? Don’t.” Principia’s calm tone suddenly turned hard as the three tensed together. “There’s something you don’t know. Y’see this young woman behind me, who took the brunt of your attack? She is a member of the Thieves’ Guild. You’ve assaulted members of two major cults. So I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You can either submit to arrest and be taken back to the Temple of Avei to face justice, or you can try to run, and the Guild will take this up with you in its own time.”
They hesitated, huddling closer together and exchanging a round of glances.
Behind them came the tromp of boots. Saduko leaned around Principia to look past the attackers, discovering two Silver Legionnaires advancing up the alley in shield wall formation. Only two were enough to block the narrow space; in those confines, their braced shields with lances protruding made a very menacing spectacle indeed.
“Avelea, Szaravid,” Principia said, nodding to them. “Good timing.”
“Only kind we have, Sarge.”
“Now, you’re thinking you are anonymous,” Principia went on, returning her gaze to the vandals. “In the first place, that carriage of yours had a deliberately rebuilt frame over solid core enchantments—if the person who did that for you isn’t actually a member of the Guild, he or she works with them on a daily basis. It’s a finite roster of enchanters who do that kind of work. Besides, this end of the alley may look less stabby than the other end, but all I have to do is take down one of you. I guarantee that one will tell the Sisterhood anything they choose to ask. Someone will find you if you run, and you had better pray to Avei it’s her people. So what’s it gonna be?”
The tallest figure immediately raised his hands in the air.
“Jethro!” protested the third, who by voice was also a woman.
“I said this whole thing was dumb!” he exclaimed. “I said it! I’m not getting in any worse with the Legions, Talia, and I’m sure as hell not setting the Guild after me! Omnu’s balls, you and your damn schemes…”
“Wise man,” Principia said approvingly. “Whoop, it appears to be academic now, anyway.” Behind her, with another clatter of heavy boots on pavement, Casey and Merry had appeared in the alley’s mouth. In the near distance a bell was ringing, the kind used by the military police to summon aid to a crisis. “You had your window to run if you were going to try it. Does anybody feel like getting themselves in any more trouble?”
Moments later, all three were on their knees on the alley floor, hands on their heads, stripped of hats and scarves and being efficiently searched by Ephanie.
“How did you do this?” Saduko asked quietly. “I watched your squad split off. They were going in completely separate directions. And there is no way you could have predicted which alley they would run down!”
“I sure as hell didn’t predict the carriage,” Principia muttered. “Getting sloppy, making assumptions… Maybe I’m just too old to adapt fast enough to new enchantments. No, Saduko, it sounds like you didn’t do your homework, either. You saw the same things these turkeys did, and concluded exactly what you were meant to. Them, I understand; you should raise your game a bit. Tell you what, if you’ve figured it out by the time we get back to the temple I’ll buy you dinner. Oh, hey there, lads!”
She moved toward the mouth of the alley, where the two Imperial soldiers from before had arrived, staves in hand, studying the scene carefully.
“Sergeant,” said Lieutenant Talour. “Looks like you did manage to find something more than scenery.”
“It found me,” she protested innocently.
“I assume this has something to do with the wrecked carriage now blocking the street?”
“Bet your bars it did.” She half-turned to point with her sword at the three captives, now being helped to their feet with their hands bound behind their backs. “I’d appreciate an Army escort back to the temple to observe proceedings—it’ll cut down on the number of reports and interviews to be done later.”
“But?” Talour drawled.
“Yeah, as the target of an obviously premeditated assault, I’m claiming Legion privilege on this one.”
He sighed heavily, looked carefully at Saduko, at the three attackers, at Principia and finally at the remaining Legionnaires.
“All right,” he said finally. “But after this, I’m gonna ask you to stay safe again, and this time, put some effort into it, yeah?”
“I will do my very best,” Principia said sweetly.