Tag Archives: Eserion

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Home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darling blinked. “Uh.”

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

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

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

“What did happen?” Darling asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heel, girl.”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Shadows passed over him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanzayed snorted; Ampophrenon and Varsinostro exchanged an unreadable glance.

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

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

“Anymore?” the blue repeated curiously.

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

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

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

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

“Not remotely,” the red replied.

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

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

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

“As are we all,” Ampophrenon said firmly.

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

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

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

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“Well, I do believe each of us who plans to attend has arrived,” said the woman with shifting patterns of light irridescing across her midnight black skin. “For whom of the mortal persuasion are we waiting, Izara?”

“No one,” said the goddess of love, currently no more dramatic in appearance than a somewhat homely young woman with unruly hair, her only odd affectation being the choice of peasant garb a century and a half out of date. “I appreciate you all going out of your way to join me; I realize not everyone enjoys coming here.”

“Some of us enjoy coming here very much,” Eserion commented from the table in the corner, raising his eyes from his card game to wink at her.

“Why here, then?” Salyrene asked with a reproachful frown, causing the ripples of blue and gold light decorating her form to shift subtly to more angular patterns. “Particularly if you’re aware that we do not all find this place equally comfortable.”

“This, I believe, is not a conversation that should be had in comfort,” Izara said seriously. “And forgive me for pointing it out, but we all know that assuming a discrete form improves our ability to focus.”

“Assembling on the mortal plane is an unnecessary risk,” Avei said, swiveling on her stool to put her back to the bar and giving Izara a very direct stare. No one took offense at her brusque tone, which they all knew was characteristic and signified no hostility. “We established this place to have a secure meeting spot wherein to speak with significant mortals, in neutral ground outside the aegis of our cults or the Universal Church. If no mortals are to be involved in this conversation, I suggest moving it to someplace less vulnerable.”

“Forgive me, sister,” Nemitoth mused, not looking up from the massive tome laid out on the small table at which he sat alone, “but ‘secure’ was the operative word in that declaration. No one presently has any designs on us. No one is aware that we are here.”

“You know the glaring weakness in that book,” Avei said pointedly.

Vidius chuckled, leaning back in his chair so that it tipped up on its hind legs. “Yes, and Elilial is always after us and usually hidden from view, but come on. If she had any weapon that posed a threat to the lot of us gathered here, we wouldn’t only now be learning of it. Besides, Izara’s right and you know it. Too much divinity is not healthy. Or have you forgotten how our…predecessors…ended up?”

Avei’s answering snort was evocative of a disdainful warhorse, but she offered no further comment, merely reaching for her whiskey on the rocks and taking a sip which did not lower the level of drink in the glass.

“Thank you,” said Izara, nodding graciously to the god of death, who tipped his broad hat to her in reply. “Then, in the interests of not keeping you all here any longer than absolutely necessary, I will come to the point. We need to discuss Arachne.”

From the assembled gods there came a chorus of sighs and groans, and two muted laughs.

The expensively appointed common room of the Elysium had rarely been this crowded; as a couple of its current occupants had mentioned, most of them did not enjoy coming here without good and specific purpose. For all of that, the majority of them would not at a glance have been taken for anything but a gathering of perhaps oddly-dressed friends at a posh bar. Of those present, only Salyrene and Ouvis made themselves visually striking, and only the goddess of magic did it as a deliberate affectation. The god of the sky sat by himself in a corner, facing the wall, and manipulating the tiny clouds and whirlwinds surrounding himself like a child lost in the inner world of his toys. In fact, he hadn’t even been specifically invited to this gathering; none of them were ever certain how much of their conversations he was aware of, much less paying attention to.

The entire Pantheon was not present, of course. Some of those whom Izara had included in her call had not troubled to show up, which was characteristic of the group as a whole. The usual absentees were, of course, absent. Shaath and Calomnar disdained any sort of gathering they weren’t firmly bullied into attending, and nobody went to the trouble except at great need; they generally weren’t missed. Vemnesthis, as usual, could not be bothered to tear himself away from his own ceaseless vigil, and even kind-hearted Izara hadn’t troubled to invite Naphthene, who these days tended to reply to social overtures with threats.

Most of them had clustered together at a few tables, though as usual Nemitoth had taken a private table upon which to lay out his book, and Avei preferred to seat herself at the bar, where she had a more tactically useful view of the room. Eserion and Vesk had tucked themselves away at a small table in the corner, playing a card game whose object appeared to be making up increasingly ridiculous rules and bullying or tricking each other into abiding by them.

“I have a very effective way of dealing with Arachne, which I’m surprised you haven’t all adopted,” Avei said disparagingly. “Just slap her when she needs it. She doesn’t even mind all that much; some people simply have to be constantly reminded of their boundaries.”

Izara sighed. “I’m sure you know very well why I’ll never embrace your tactics, sister.”

“Because you’re soft-hearted,” Avei replied, but with clear affection.

“And others,” added Omnu in a basso rumble, “because those tactics are about as productive as they are kind. I’m sorry, Avei, but I don’t think you’ve ever really understood the Arachne. Brute force is what she prefers to use, not what she is. She isn’t the least bit impressed by pain or the threat thereof.”

“And yet, my methods get exactly the results I want,” Avei said dryly.

Eserion chuckled again. “I’d have to say that most of you have never bothered to understand Arachne, you least of all, Avei. Arachne doesn’t continue to push at you because you don’t have anything she wants. Be grateful she’s running that school, now; for a while, there, I was seriously concerned she’d just get bored and start seeing how much she could get away with before we had to step in. Go fish.”

“You can’t tell me to go fish,” Vesk protested. “It’s a Wednesday and I’ve already played a ducal flush.”

“Oh, bullshit, that rule was retired when I annexed your queen.”

“Aha!” Grinning, the god of bards plucked one of the cards from his hand and turned it around, revealing a portrait of Eserion. “But I get to re-activate a retired rule of my choice, because I have the Fool!”

“Oh, you are such an asshole.”

Verniselle cleared her throat loudly. “In any case! The Arachne’s personality and general goals are not news. I assume, Izara, if you’ve brought us here to discuss her, there is new business?”

“I’ll say there is,” Vesk muttered, eyes back on his cards.

Izara sighed. “I’m afraid she’s rather worked up at the moment, more than ever before. She’s taken to barging into temples and threatening priests in order to get our attention.”

“Temples, plural?” Avei said sharply, glancing over at Vesk. “Our?”

“She’s done it to the both of us, now,” Vesk affirmed, nodding distractedly. “Checkmate.”

“Foiled!” Eserion proclaimed, laying his hand down face up. “Full suit of Cats! And since it is Wednesday and you forced me to crown your red piece, your entire hand is converted to wave-function cards!”

“Son of a bitch,” Vesk cried in exasperation, but grudgingly laid his hand face-down on the table, where they each became indeterminate, their values only determined when observed again.

Avei cleared her throat pointedly. Vesk ignored her, picking up his hand again and scowling at its new contents.

“Can you two keep it down, please?” Salyrene said irritably, her luminous skin patterns taking on a subtly orange hue.

“Sorry,” both trickster gods said in unison without looking up from their game.

“Well, that kind of behavior is not acceptable,” Avei said sharply. “Something must clearly be done about this. Thank you, Izara, for bringing it to us.”

“That is not why I brought it to you,” Izara said firmly. “Please don’t rush off and do anything drastic, or rash. I wanted to talk about this, because I’m not certain that she doesn’t have a point. Arachne is having trouble with Justinian.”

“Justinian?” Vidius inquired, frowning. “What’s he done now?”

A sudden hush fell over the room, even Ouvis’s clouds falling momentarily still. Nemitoth blinked, then frowned, flipping back and forth several pages in his book as if he had suddenly lost his place, which none of the other gods seemed to notice, each of them also frowning into space in apparent confusion.

The moment passed almost immediately, and Verniselle spoke in a sharper tone. “Nonetheless, we clearly cannot allow the Arachne to think she can bully us this way. I saw no harm in indulging her when her aspirations were lower, but if there is a repeat of what happened to Sorash…”

“That isn’t going to happen,” Vidius said wryly.

“No, it won’t,” Avei replied in an even grimmer tone than usual. “Because if she tries—”

“Oh, settle down,” Vidius said, folding his arms. “Honestly, I’m appalled at how little most of you have troubled to even understand how Arachne thinks.”

Both trickster gods cleared their throats pointedly, then shouted “Jinx!” in virtually perfect unison. Eserion, who had been roughly a quadrillionth of a second behind, let out an irritated huff and tossed two cards face-down in the center of the table, where Vesk selected one smugly and added it to his own hand.

“I said most.” Vidius gave them a sardonic look before turning back toward Avei. “Sorash was an extremely anomalous case; she is simply not going to light into any of us that way. Do you even know what he did to set her off? He tried to keep her on a leash.”

“Sorash was always obsessed with power and dominance,” Omnu rumbled pensively. “Arachne never failed to do her research; surely she knew to expect that before campaigning for his attention.”

“I don’t think you understand,” Vidius said darkly. “That was not a coy turn of phrase. It was an actual leash. It came with a jeweled collar and a skimpy little outfit, and a cute nickname.”

Salyrene winced, her lights abruptly shifting to a dark blue. “We don’t need to hear—”

“Silky,” Vidius said, giving them all a long face.

Avei’s whiskey glass abruptly shattered into powder. She hadn’t been touching it at the time.

“So, no,” Vidius continued, “there’s not going to be a repeat of that incident. Sorash went well above and beyond the call in antagonizing her, while simultaneously placing her in such a position that he was uniquely vulnerable to attack. None of the rest of us are foolish enough or, to be perfectly frank, assholish enough to do such a thing. And let’s not pretend that anybody here mourned Sorash’s passing. Those of you who didn’t actively express relief were merely being discreet, and you all know it.”

“I wasn’t discreet,” Avei said grimly, pausing to sip from a restored glass of whiskey, this time neat. “I made no secret that I was glad enough to be rid of him. In fact, I never knew the details of that; I find myself rather regretting the mild ire I felt toward Arachne for the sheer presumption.”

“This is why I wish we wouldn’t keep secrets from each other,” Omnu said sorrowfully. “It leads to nothing but misunderstanding. In Sorash’s case, his lust for privacy was his downfall.”

“It sounds like that wasn’t the lust that caused his downfall,” Vesk commented cheerfully.

“Hah!” Eserion grinned at him. “You said the L-word! And since you brought the Seven Deadlies back into play…”

“Oh, bullshit,” Vesk protested. “You do not have the—”

He broke off when the god of thieves plucked a card from his hand, turning it around to reveal the portrait of a succubus garbed in filmy scarves, looking coquettishly over her shoulder.

“Omnu’s balls,” Vesk said in exasperation, pulling out three of his cards and handing them over.

“Excuse me?” Omnu exclaimed. Verniselle placed a hand over her eyes, slumping down in her chair.

“Be all that as it may,” said Salyrene, “it is obviously a matter of concern if Arachne is going to start being overtly hostile. Even if we take it as given that there will be no further deicide, it’s just not acceptable for her to push gods around toward her own ends.”

“Especially if she is going to use such violent tactics,” Salyrene added.

“I really don’t think she would have harmed any priests,” said Vesk distractedly. “Complain all you want about the woman’s general lack of social skills, but have you ever known her to deliberately hurt someone who hadn’t done something to deserve it?”

“I had the same feeling,” said Izara, nodding. “Consider who she tried that on. Vesk and myself would both intervene on behalf of our people, and she knows us well enough to know that. I think she is wise enough not to attempt it with someone who would call her bluff.”

“Still,” Salyrene said pointedly.

“Yes,” Avei agreed. “Still.”

“Still,” Izara said doggedly, “at issue here is that she isn’t necessarily wrong—in her purpose, if not her methods. When, as appears to be the case, she is under an unprovoked and undeserved attack by the Universal Church, the matter reflects upon us.”

“So,” Vidius mused, “you believe this will sort itself out if we rein in the Archpope?”

Again, a momentary pall fell across the room, marred only by Nemitoth’s irritated grunt and the ruffling of pages.

“I think it’s worth appreciating the source of her hostility,” Vidius continued as if nothing had transpired. “She blames most of you for being selfish and cowardly when she came to you for help. And she isn’t wrong, there.”

“Not this again,” Verniselle groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Her story was sheer nonsense,” Salyrene said sharply, the patterns of light limning her shifting into a far more rapid speed.

“Elilial believed her,” Vidius retorted. “More to the point, Themynra believed her. Whatever you think about either of them, the fact is they have been dealing more closely and regularly with Scyllith than any of us since the ascension.”

“Have you even thought about what you’re suggesting?” Salyrene said heatedly, her lights glowing redder and speeding up further still. “It is simply inconceivable that Scyllith would have the power to do a thing like that. None of the Infinite Order could have managed it before we brought them down, and the survivors now are deprived of most of their power and agency. Scyllith, further, has never been anything but a troublemaker; if she could impact the world so severely, we would definitely have learned of it.”

“We know that the fundamental nature of the surviving Elders was changed by the ascension,” Nemitoth interjected thoughtfully. “That was the whole point of it. Don’t think in terms of sheer power—you of all people should know better than that, Salyrene. Naiya and Scyllith have both been trying to acclimate to their new circumstances ever since, experimenting with different methods. If Scyllith’s fundamental nature and approach to manipulating reality altered significantly from what we knew when last we had her directly under our gaze, it’s reasonable to conclude that she might be capable of things which would surprise us.”

“Don’t tell me you believe that fairy tale now,” Salyrene exclaimed.

“I believe nothing,” Nemitoth said calmly. “There is not data to support Arachne’s claim—and notably, it is an unprovable hypothesis. Reasoning, however, suggests that it is not necessarily impossible.”

“And consider this,” Vidius added. “We all know how severely Scyllith was further weakened after her clash with Arachne and Elilial. It only makes sense that she wouldn’t be able to pull off a feat like that a second time.”

“That works the other way, too,” Salyrene countered, her lights moving in calmer patterns now. “Why would she suddenly have the capability in the first place? And how? Remember, Elilial took her down alone—and that while she was isolated from support in Scyllith’s own realm.”

“I’m not sure how significant that is,” Avei murmured, gazing into her glass. “Elilial was always the vastly superior strategist, and Scyllith’s brutality and overweening arrogance frequently caused her trouble. We all know about the Belosiphon affair. Elilial turned the demons against her, which was as much Scyllith’s fault for how she treated them as Elilial’s for suborning them.”

“This is an old argument, though,” Izara said patiently. “No, I can’t find it in myself to believe Arachne’s account of her history, either, which has little bearing on this situation. The question is this: is she right to be specifically upset with us now? Because if so, I feel she should not only be forgiven for her suddenly more aggressive moves, but we should also think seriously about defending her to Justinian.”

Silence held sway for a moment. Nemitoth narrowed his eyes, bending closer to his book as if having trouble making out what was written on the page.

“I’ll give you my two bits,” said Vidius. “Arachne is a difficult personality, yes, and it’s undoubtedly true that she takes full advantage of our need to protect her. However, I have never found her hard to predict, or even to work with. The key is simply to extend a little compassion and patience—more than we are accustomed to having to offer anyone, anymore, and for that reason alone I say she’s worth keeping around. We have all seen firsthand how badly it can go when gods have no one to keep them humble.” He nodded to Izara. “I support a patient approach.”

“I agree,” Omnu said quietly. “I cannot say I have troubled to know her as well as you have, brother, but the broad strokes of your analysis are borne out by my own experience. The Arachne is not more problematic than we can bear…and she does not inflict harm without provocation. If she has become more aggressive, we ought to consider that she may be justified.”

“That is not how justice works,” Avei said flatly. “She doesn’t get to invade temples and assault priests just to make a point!”

“It was a matter of threats more than assault,” Vesk commented.

“I consider them to be in the same category of actions,” Avei retorted. “Whether she was provoked or no, I see only trouble coming from indulging her in this behavior.”

“I abstain from this,” Salyrene declared, glowing slightly more golden. “It was not my temple she desecrated—if she had, I would certainly not have indulged her in anything but a blistering reprisal. What she has done to Izara and Vesk, I’ll trust them to have the judgment to address themselves. Until Arachne starts another campaign of dragging us all into her problems, I say leave her alone. This isn’t an issue the Pantheon as a whole needs to answer.”

“There are points to be made on both sides of this,” Verniselle said thoughtfully, flipping a platinum coin back and forth between her hands. “Arachne’s nature does suggest that she would not be so assertive without reason…but on the other hand, there are lines she should not be allowed to cross. I think I concur with you, sister,” she added, nodding to Salyrene. “If anything is to be done, let it be up to those who have a personal stake.”

“Hm,” Nemitoth grunted, gazing abstractly at the wall.

All the gods present, including the onlookers who had abstained entirely from the convesation, turned to study the two card players in the corner.

Eserion slapped his hand down on the table. “Zoological flush. Eat it, banjo boy.”

Vesk carefully laid out three cards in a row, then pantomimed setting down an invisible fourth one. “Queen of Cups, Queen of Rods, Queen of Diamonds, and the Emperor’s New Clothes. The game is still afoot.”

“Oh, come on,” Eserion exclaimed. “You seriously expect me to believe you had the Taming Maidens just waiting for that play?”

“Would you like to phrase that as an accusation?” Vesk asked sweetly. “Of course, you know the penalty a Penitent Jihad carries if you are wrong.”

“Just deal,” Eserion said sullenly.

“I see,” Izara mused, then smiled around at the assemble deities. “Well, I’m sorry to have brought up such a difficult cluster of subjects…but I thank you all for your contributions.”

“Have you come to a conclusion, then, dear?” Vidius asked, smiling.

“I believe I have,” she replied. “Now the question becomes one of timing… In any case, I appreciate you all coming at my request. I’ll take up no more of your time.”

With a final smile around at them and a respectful nod, she vanished.

Avei drew in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh through her nose, then likewise disappeared. One by one, the other deities flickered out of being, all except Salyrene disappearing without fanfare or production. The goddess of magic made sure to leave early enough that she had an audience for the rather overwrought light show that marked her departure.

Quite soon, the Elysium was again as quiet as usual, nearly all of its inhabitants gone.

“You know,” Vesk said casually, studying his cards, “I really like Justinian. I think he’s a great Archpope.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion replied in an equally mild tone. “Stand-up guy. I don’t have a thing to say against him.”

“Exactly! In fact, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t think of anything I would change about him.”

“I’ve noticed the same. I don’t remember the last time I had a thought about him that wasn’t purely approving. All right, I didn’t want to do this, but I’m playing the One of Unicorns.” Smirking with intolerable smugness, he laid down a card face-up, which bathed the entire room in a glow of breathtaking silver purity. “All cheating is now suspended; lay down all the cards up your sleeves.”

“Oh, you did not just do that,” Vesk grumbled, setting his hand down face-down and grudgingly extracting five whole decks from various places within his coat and adding them to the cards already on the table. “You realize how long this game is going to drag on, now?”

“You could always yield.”

“You could always blow me.”

“I’ll take a rain check.” He drew another from the now-towering deck, adding it to his hand and gazing thoughtfully at his cards. “Yeah, though, great guy, Justinian. I can’t think of a single thing wrong with him. I can still think about thinking about him, though. Seems almost odd, when I think about thinking about it. I’m ordinarily so…critical.”

“I’ve thought about thinking about that myself,” Vesk agreed idly, studying his own cards. “Almost makes me glad I’ve got people who can do my thinking for me.”

“Mm hm,” Eserion said. “Very fortunately, I’ve a few of my more trusted mortals circling the very excellent Archpope even now. If anything in particular needs to be thought about him, I’m sure they can attend to it.”

“You know, I’m glad to hear you say that,” Vesk replied. “I’ve been thinking about considering such a thing myself. Perhaps I’ll make an idle mention of my thoughts in a few particular ears.”

“Oh, sure, that’s a good idea. There’s never any harm in spreading rumors, after all.”

“All right, wiseass, you asked for it.” Smirking, the bard god pulled two cards from his deck and stood them on end facing each other. “Facing Portal Jokers. I can now draw any face card of my choosing from the aether. You want to call this now, or shall I drag you down screaming?”

Smiling beatifically, Eserion selected a single card from his hand and stood it up between the first two. They were both instantly sucked into it, and the remaining card crumpled itself into a tiny ball, then vanished. “And my portable hole reduces your standing wormhole to a quantum singularity. Did you enjoy wasting your turn, buttercup?”

“Oh, you magnificent bastard!”

In the far corner, Ouvis idly played with his clouds, seemingly oblivious to the world.

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Darling couldn’t help noticing that he had never noticed this place before.

Positioned in the Steppes, an upscale mercantile district which had been formed into a series of terraces rather than flowing with the gradual slope of the ground as most of Tiraas did (hence the name), it was a little over a quarter of the way downhill from Imperial Square in the opposite direction from his own home. He had been here many times, both as Sweet and on the more aboveboard business of the Church, and knew it well, yet the Elysium was an unknown sight to him. From the outside, it could have been any upscale tea room or winery (the very wealthy did not loaf about in bars or pubs, at least not where their friends were likely to see), with an understated sign bearing its name and nothing else to distinguish its modest facade. This was exactly the sort of place that should have caught his interest many times before.

Of course, there were enchantments that could conceal a place from those who were not invited, or who were not looking for it specifically, or based upon any number of other variables. They were complex and expensive spells, though, which raised questions about what was hidden behind them and who would bother to place them there. Luckily he knew who he was here to meet, which answered several such questions, but he could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t being told everything.

He paid close attention to this feeling. It had saved his life repeatedly.

Thus, he loitered for over a minute on the sidewalk, studying the plain stone construction, the tastefully gilded sign—and wondering what “Elysium” meant, aside from sounding vaguely elvish—the wrought iron bars on its curtained windows and bordering the stone staircase descending to its subterranean entrance, which was lit only by a single fairy lamp.

He was already uncomfortable, dressed as he was in a simple but expensive suit, with his hair styled in the Bishop’s well-groomed coif rather than Sweet’s slicked-back look. Lurking between identities set off a dissonance in his mind that only exacerbated his general unease, but given who he was here to meet and how little he knew of what to expect, this was the best he could do.

With a sigh, he descended the stairs. At the bottom was a clean little nook containing an elegant stone bench and the entrance. The Elysium’s door was of redwood, polished to near luminosity, offset by clouded glass panels and a brass handle. Darling rolled his neck, straightened his shoulders, double-checked his aloof smile (in place and operating normally), then pulled the door open and strode in as though he owned the place.

It was a pub, though its target clientele would probably have disdained the word. A more expensively appointed space he had rarely seen outside of the mansions of the rich; everything was dark-stained wood, with accents of marble and gilt, with silken tablecloths and draperies, surmounted by a chandelier of actual crystal, which glowed without benefit of candles. The room was tall, easily a story and a half, but neither broad nor deep. Tables were scattered widely enough that those sitting at them would have relative privacy. A bench lined the wall adjacent to the street above, a long bar lined the other immediately to his right, and at the rear of the room a short flight of steps rose to an elevated nook containing a lavishly-appointed booth, at which his “date” for the evening waited.

Darling didn’t immediately fix his eyes upon her, however, first taking stock of the room’s other inhabitants. The Elysium was sparsely inhabited at the moment. Closest to the door was a woman in an Imperial Army uniform, sitting at the bar; she glanced up at him when he entered, then returned to nursing her drink, clearly dismissing him as unimportant. She was also, he noted, quite pretty: tall and strongly built, with black hair drawn back in a severe ponytail which cascaded down her back in an avalanche of curls. Women could and did serve in the Imperial Army—the Empire’s goddess of war being also the protector of women, there was no discrimination by sex among the armed forces. Most women who wanted to be soldiers joined the Silver Legions, though. Still, this wasn’t the first female Imperial soldier he’d ever seen. The Legions didn’t take everyone who applied, and besides, there were always the patriotic, the irreligious, and various other outliers.

Like the soldier, the bar’s other denizens gave him barely a glance before returning to their own business. In the corner opposite the door, a burly blonde man dressed as a laborer and a slim man in the black coat of a Church priest were hunched over a game of chess; they ignored him entirely. A young couple was canoodling in another corner. He made a point not to stare. The mix of people in here made little sense to Darling—from the rich trappings and extravagant magical security, not to mention the company he was to keep this evening, he’d have expected lords and ladies, high priests, possibly even the better class of criminals. Soldiers, preachers, farmers…the list of incongruities continued to grow.

He nodded respectfully toward the alcove at the back and moved forward to approach it.

“Evening, Antonio! Punaji Sunrise, right?”

Darling blinked in surprise, turning to look at the bartender, who had been hidden behind the soldier from his position at the door. This was a face he knew very well: lean, swarthy, with shaggy black hair and perpetual mirth lurking about the eyes. On the bar before him was a drink, a layered confection of different liqueurs and syrups that cost far too much and took far too long to make, which was exactly why Darling habitually ordered it. The man pushed it gently toward him.

For a moment, his mind went blank at the sheer enormity of the implications. Then, the pieces snapped into place, and he cast another swift glance about the room. The soldier, the farmer, the dark man…of course. No wonder he’d never seen this place before. None of them looked up to acknowledge him, but the woman took a contemplative sip of her whiskey on the rocks as his eyes slid across her. Realization did nothing to lessen his unease—if anything, it did the opposite.

Then he was back in character, the interlude having taken a sliver of a second that few humans could have noticed and the bar’s occupants surely had. “You remembered!” he said cheerfully, stepping over to collect his drink. “Should I be flattered, or concerned at the prescription?”

“Prescription, bah,” the bartender waved him away, grinning. “Worst you’ll get from that thing is a sugar rush. Best go on, your date’s waiting.”

“Aren’t they always,” he said vaguely, tilting the Sunrise toward him in toast, then turning to resume his course.

He ascended the steps carefully to the alcove. Quentin Vex sat above, at one side of the table, but Darling ignored him for the moment; it would not have done at all to greet him first. Instead, he bowed deeply to the person who had asked him here.

“Your Majesty.”

Empress Eleanora Sultana Tirasian was, needless to say, a strikingly beautiful woman. She was also a crafty and formidable individual who was known to have little regard for looks—her own, anyway. The reality was, however, that one did not marry onto the Imperial throne without being something of a showpiece. She certainly was that: waves of sable hair, deep mahogany skin, black eyes that glinted like daggers. She was tall and fell right into the combination of “slender yet curvy” that occurred so often in cheap novels and so rarely in biology. Indeed, she might have suited the (so called) Avenic ideal perfectly, except that she lacked the strong build of a woman who worked and/or fought for a living. Eleanora was a noblewoman and born politician; she had never run two steps in her life, nor lifted anything heavier than a wine bottle.

“Bishop,” she replied coolly, not inclining her head in return. There was probably no one in the world to whom she would bow. “Please, join us.”

“My thanks, Majesty,” he said, then set his drink on the table. Taking one of the gilded chairs by its back, he slid it around and seated himself at the side of the table, opposite Lord Vex, rather than directly before her as indicated. She raised an eyebrow and even the normally-somnolent Vex straightened slightly at this flagrant breach of protocol, but the hell he was putting his back to that room full of…them.

Eleanora flicked her eyes once to the main floor of the bar, then smiled very faintly. Darling took this for a sign of understanding; she was far too savvy to accidentally betray her thoughts with careless gestures.

“How may I be of service, your Majesty?” he asked once seated.

For a moment she just looked at him. There was a stillness about her, a piercing intelligence in her gaze, that threatened to ruffle his equilibrium. As both Sweet and the Bishop he was accustomed to the presence of dangerous people and rarely met anyone who penetrated his calm. Something about her, though… Eleanora had certainly not become Empress because of her looks.

“I am in need of a priest,” she said finally.

“I am flattered,” he replied. “And somewhat perplexed, I confess. Surely you could have your pick of the services of any priest in the Empire?”

“I have,” she said dryly, “and it is to my great fortune that my pick of priests is available to me, as I think you know that many are not.” This was skating close to the dangerous topic of the rivalry between Church and Throne, a subject he was eager to avoid in this of all company, but she went smoothly on. “The gods are fond of reminding us that no degree of mortal power entitles any human being to a greater stake of their attention, but the reality is as you see it here. For the leaders of the Empire, certain little courtesies are extended, to our great gratitude. One such is access to this…sanctuary.”

Again, she glanced past him to the bar area, and he did likewise. The barman winked.

“Here,” the Empress continued, “we are effectively outside the world and its concerns. Its bloody neverending politics. Here I can forget for a moment about being Empress, you can relax the tension that leading the multiplicitous existence you do must cause. Neither of us need pretend that we don’t all know exactly the nature of my relationship with the man I call husband.” She leaned forward slightly, holding his gaze. “I can approach you as a woman with a spiritual problem, seeking help from a cleric who happens to be the leading expert in this topic.”

“All right, then,” he said slowly. “Is there…something you would like me to steal?”

The corners of her eyes crinkled very slightly in amusement, but she quickly mastered her expression and spoke a single name. “Elilial.”

“Ah,” he said ruefully. “I’m afraid I was never one for kidnapping, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Vex cleared his throat. “I believe I warned your Majesty that the Bishop fancies himself…amusing.”

“He is,” the Empress said, not taking her eyes off Darling, “but I would prefer that we be serious now.”

“My sincere apologies, your Majesty.” He bowed to her from his seat.

“She was in my home,” she said, and from beneath her iron self-control there whispered hints of ferocity, barely contained. “She shared a bed with the man I think of as a brother. We talked, shared meals, even games.” The Empress clenched her jaw momentarily. “I once let her rub my shoulders. She was remarkably good at that.”

Darling put on and held his very best sympathetically attentive face. In truth, this was a situation he had little idea how to handle.

“Among the theologians who have studied Elilial extensively,” Eleanora went on, “most are so heavily wedded to Church dogma that every other word from them is a sermon in miniature. But Lord Vex tells me that you are something of an expert on her movements as well. More importantly, he suggests that you see her as an individual, not an…incarnation.”

“You know what invaded your home,” he said softly. “You want to understand who.”

“Precisely.”

Something tingled at the back of Darling’s neck, a sensation with which he was well acquainted: risk, and opportunity. “What, then, would your Majesty like to know?”

“First of all…how did you come to devote such time and study to Elilial?” Apparently she wasn’t one to come right to the point, but then, few politicians were. “It seems a peculiar hobby for an acolyte of the god of thieves.”

“On the contrary,” he said smoothly, simply running with it, “the cults of Elilial and Eserion have many similarities. Sometimes I am tempted to conclude that ours are the only faiths which inherently value subtlety.”

Below, one of the chess players—the thin man in the dark coat—cleared his throat. Darling carefully did not betray himself by glancing at him.

“As for why… I have often thought that the Church’s approach to warning people against Elilial’s schemes has done more harm than good. So much effort putting into portraying her as the destroyer, the deceiver, playing up her relationship to the demonic plane without ever mentioning how that is happenstance caused by the Pantheon and not her own choice. It warns the faithful and the casual away from seeking her out, yes—well, most of them—but leaves people frighteningly vulnerable to her when she does choose to move among us.”

“How so?”

“She’s a thief,” he said, warming to his subject. “A con artist, a trickster. All theatrics and misdirection, someone who plays as many parts as the job requires. You could say that from a certain perspective, I empathize with her. More to the point, I understand the broad strokes of how she operates, and why telling people that she’s some kind of slavering monster is the worst possible thing we can do. The Black Wreath is older than the Empire by a wide margin, older than the Church, and while it’s damnably difficult to track their movements, we know they’ve never suffered from a lack of membership. That’s because Elilial, when she wants to be, is just so bloody nice.”

“Nice,” Eleanora said flatly.

“I think, Majesty, that you are in a position to know that better than most, if you’ll pardon me saying so.”

She held his gaze silently for a moment, then glanced to one side in thought, and nodded slowly.

“And so we shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “People meet this fearsome Queen of Demons, and find her warm, charming, rather funny, in fact. It throws everything the Church has taught them about her into question. That, by association, throws all the Church’s teachings into question. Thus, she gets one fingernail into their minds, and knows exactly how to work that until she has a loyal convert, willing to die for her.”

The Empress narrowed her eyes slightly. “Funny?”

“People are always so surprised when I say that,” he said wryly. “Yes, she has quite the sense of humor. Was that not apparent when you met her?”

“I didn’t merely ‘meet’ her, I knew her well for several months, or so I thought.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. “And yes…she did, in fact, have a sardonic wit that Sharidan and I both enjoyed. In hindsight, I’ve been second-guessing everything I remember about her in light of what I now know.”

“Don’t do that,” he advised, “it’s a trap. You are, by reputation, both perceptive and clever when it comes to people. Elilial is certainly sly enough to use that against you, but that doesn’t mean everything she said or did was a deception. Encouraging you to think it was gives her a kind of invisibility. If nobody believes what they know about her, they don’t really know anything, do they?”

She kept her gaze to the side, frowning slightly in contemplation. Vex sipped at his own wineglass, staying silent. Darling sat, not reaching for his Punaji Sunrise, allowing the Empress to think.

“How certain are you of the things you know? Why is it you know better, as you believe, than most of the Church’s theologians?”

“Simple scholarship, your Majesty,” he said modestly, refusing to back down from her intent stare once she returned it to him. “There are over eight thousand years worth of materials about Elilial’s movements to sift through, much of it muddled by simple time or tainted by the agendas of millennia of history. Not to mention that some incarnations of the Black Wreath have been quite adept at spreading misinformation. I simply hired a bunch of university and seminary students to sort through the information there was and single out the bits that met a good historian’s standards of believability. Thirty of them, for over two years…there really was a lot of material. In the end, only the tiniest amount could be considered reliable. That tiny amount was merely the work of another couple of years for me to study through, and the picture it painted of our girl was remarkably consistent.”

“Our girl?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow.

“Forgive me,” he said contritely. “If one spends enough time studying somebody’s life, one tends to feel oddly attached. No matter how horrifying the subject matter may be.”

“Hm.” Whatever she thought of that, her face gave nothing away. “She had ample opportunity to harm Sharidan, myself, and many of those closest to us. As far as we can tell, she did not.”

“That is consistent,” he said, nodding. “Historically speaking, she only harms people in particular and for specific reasons. If anything, I’d say she’s more careful about collateral damage than some gods of the Pantheon.”

“Really. Regard for others?”

He leaned back in his chair slightly, frowning in thought. “No…and yes, but no. It’s wasteful, inelegant. A good con artist uses only the lightest touch and leaves as little trace as possible. A good kneecapper relies on the threat of force rather than the use of force; you have to beat a few people down now and again to establish that you can and will, but nobody could do business if everybody were constantly attacking each other. It becomes…a code of honor, so to speak, a set of best practices that all good scoundrels follow, irrespective of any affiliations or moral leanings they may have. In time, that can be internalized to the point that causing unnecessary pain is troubling to the spirit, like a twinge of conscience. Not true compassion, but…” He groped silently for the word. “An ethic of restraint.”

“Again, you speak of her as you would a member of your Guild.”

“I think she’d do very well in the Guild. This business of infiltrating an organization in human guise… The recent events in the Palace are not the first time she’s done this. I’d be totally unsurprised to learn she has been a member of the Thieves’ Guild at one point.”

Below, the bartender laughed aloud, but did not look up from wiping the glass he was working on. The soldier shot him an irritated look.

“To move this back to my original concern…how likely do you think it that she left some trap behind, some delayed way of harming my family?”

“Not very likely at all. At least, that would be wildly out of character.” He drew in a breath slowly, looking down at the table. “Your Majesty, I’m not certain how to phrase this with any delicacy…”

“Then don’t concern yourself with delicacy,” she said firmly. “I’ll neither break nor demand your execution if you ruffle my feathers.”

“Very well,” he said gravely, keeping amusement hidden only through a truly heroic effort. “Everything in the histories suggests that Elilial’s attachments are quite real, at least to her. She’s been known to discreetly watch over people with whom she has formed relationships through deception, giving assistance when they need it years after their part in her schemes is over, sometimes avenging them when necessary.”

Eleanora narrowed her eyes. “You suggest she is truly a caring person, deep down.”

“I am not sure I’d go that far,” he hedged. “No… My perception has always been that she’s a lonely person. Her only real peers are the gods she turned against, and who cast her into Hell for it. She’s down there with nothing but demons for company most of the time. All things considered I have a hard time seeing her as particularly soft-hearted, but able to form real attachments? Maybe even desperate to do so? That I have no trouble believing.”

“Then…with regard to my family…”

“I am not sure how much of the story I know,” he admitted, “but from the basics that I do… If there were any hostility, any animosity there, you’d know already. If she behaved toward you and yours with affection, that affection is likely to be sincere. Oh, she’ll use you in her schemes like she does everyone else, and I know I needn’t tell you how these schemes in particular could well kick the very Empire right out from under us all. But on a personal level? No, I don’t believe your family has anything to fear from Elilial. If anything…should you ever find yourself in truly desperate straits, you might find yourself with a very unexpected protector.”

There was silence. In the stillness of the chamber, the very soft voices of the two in the other corner were almost intrusive; the echo of a chess piece being set down seemed to reverberate.

“That should be encouraging,” Eleanora said at last, “but if anything, I find myself more disturbed.”

“I know what you mean,” Darling said with perfect sincerity. “This is why I am always careful to study Elilial and her people from a safe distance. Reading old stories, rather than interviewing those of the Wreath we’ve managed to capture. It’s terrifying, how easily she can suck you in.”

“We still have no Imperial heir, nor any sign of one forthcoming,” she said abruptly. “The court physicians are positive that the problem is not with Sharidan. But then, they say that about each of the women in his harem, as well, and it defies reason that someone hasn’t ended up with child by now. He’s quite energetic. You will repeat that to no one.”

“Repeat what? Your pardon, Majesty, I’m a trifle deaf on this side.”

“Good. Elilial has twice hinted broadly that she is now carrying his child. Once to his face, once to three hapless soldiers who, luckily for them, had no idea what she was talking about. Is there any chance she is lying?”

“Of course. Lying is the better part of what she does. I fancy myself probably most likely of those outside the Wreath itself to give credit to Elilial’s better traits, but even I won’t try to present her as anything less than a compulsive deceiver. Before the Fall, she was simply the goddess of cunning. The other gods didn’t turn their backs on her then, and that’s when they counted her an ally.”

“But on the other hand…”

“On the other hand, yes, she has birthed several demigods that we know of. One of whom is currently attending classes in Last Rock.”

The Empress’s mouth twisted in dislike, a curiously strong reaction, but she simply went on: “Could she have been responsible for the childlessness of the other women in the Palace?”

“It does seem consistent with her apparent scheme, but… I’m sorry, your Majesty, I’m glad to share my insights into what Elilial is likely to do, based on what she’s done in the past, but as to what she can do…nobody can really help you. The one thing we know she is very good at is concealing her movements, a trait which extends to members of the Wreath. Just as priests of Omnu have that calming aura, and Izarite clerics get the uncanny ability to discern someone’s emotional needs, invested followers of Elilial gain the gift of hiding their movements. Even from the gods.”

There were no fewer than three small sounds of activity from the floor below. He reflexively froze for a moment.

“Which, obviously, makes any other powers they possess…particularly unknowable.”

“Just so, your Majesty.”

“You have been very helpful, Bishop Darling,” the Empress said, leaning back in her seat. “Not that my mind is put at ease, but I feel I can worry constructively rather than generally, now.”

“I do what I can,” he said modestly.

“Well, that is another question,” she said in a mild tone that instantly made his hackles rise. “Rather like Elilial, it is a curious conundrum…what you can do, and what you are likely to do.”

“I beg your pardon?” he said politely. His mind was racing at the shift of mood. Vex, still silent, was watching him fixedly through half-lidded eyes. Eleanora’s attention was less subtle, and there was a hint of a satisfied smile hovering about her mouth that he didn’t like at all.

“Tell me, are you acquainted with Bishop Syrinx?”

“We have spoken in passing,” he said, tilting his head to the side in a gesture of innocent curiosity. “I can’t say I know her well.”

“She is possibly the worst Avenist I’ve ever met,” Eleanora went on conversationally, not even flinching when the soldier set her whiskey glass down hard on the bar. “Vindictive, underhanded, and altogether a better politician than a priest. But if I do say so, she makes an excellent Bishop.”

“I begin to wonder if I should feel offended.”

“There is an interesting layer to the power struggle in this city, you see. Not just between the Throne and the Church, but between the Church and the disparate faiths it is supposed to collect under its aegis. So many of their doctrines contradict one another outright that the Archpopes have always been forced to dance a very delicate line, keeping a unified doctrinal front.”

Darling nodded pleasantly, refusing to glance at the door. He knew this, she knew he knew it; everyone who was a player in this game, or even just a somewhat educated cleric, knew it. She was giving a monologue, like a villain in a novel. This was not a good sign; Eleanora Tirasian was clever enough and ruthless enough to make an excellent villain. Vex, even less encouragingly, had begun to smile. Both of them had a theatrical streak.

“This results in things like the Bishops,” the Empress went on, still in that conversational tone. “By and large, they are a consistent bunch. Crafty, better at rising through the ranks of religious hierarchies than at practicing any actual faith. I imagine their respective High Priests were just as glad to get rid of them, and they make excellent pawns for Justinian. And then there is you.”

“I’ll have you know I fit in splendidly with my colleagues,” he said mildly. “I get along with everyone.”

“I know you do, Sweet. You are everybody’s friend.” Her eyes bored into him; he refused to react to the use of his tag. “This city is just lousy with people who owe you favors, or simply like you enough to do you favors, which has been the secret of your success. And that is what makes you stand out among your fellow Bishops. You are actually a really good priest of Eserion.”

“You’re going to make me blush!”

“It may just be that Eserion’s cult is an inherently unusual one,” she went on, ignoring him. “Where most of the gods direct their followers to some beneficial end, or what they believe to be one, disciples of the god of thieves are sent to go out and steal things. So I have to wonder… Why would the Guild send their once high priest to the Church?” She folded her hands primly on the table and smiled pleasantly at him. “What, exactly, are you supposed to steal?”

Darling made a show of glancing back and forth, then leaned in close. “Can you keep a secret?”

Still smiling, she raised an eyebrow.

He grinned. “Everything. Every damn thing, down to Justinian’s fuzzy slippers. It’ll be the heist of the millennium.”

“I believe I asked you to be serious.”

“So you did, and so I was. And then you attempted to maneuver an avowed thief into a corner. I’m curious, your Majesty, what response you expected that to get.”

“There is a question here, Darling, about loyalty. I am intrigued by you on a number of levels, but it is hardly possible for me to take any action with regard to you before I know with whom you stand. Is it the Empire? The Church? Your god, or the gods in general?”

“This I know about gods,” he said, picking up his untouched drink. The layers had begun to blend into each other after long minutes sitting idle. “I am fully aware of and grateful for their gifts to us. But gods, like people, are individuals, with their own personalities and agendas. They are people, however fundamentally different. And like any other group of people, they can be a right bunch of bastards.”

Her eyebrows climbed at that, and a deathly silence fell over the room. Darling raised his glass to her in toast and focused his attention, reaching for that inner glow deep inside himself.

They were not encouraged to draw on it; thieves had little use for it. But Eserion, for good or ill, was a god of the Pantheon, and he and his followers were therefore entitled to certain benefits—including the healing light. Channeled through his hand, it caught the liquid in the glass, blazing from each of the slightly-muddied layers of the drink and causing it to glow like a stained glass fairy lamp.

“Those who have my loyalty know it. Those who would have my loyalty can earn it, in the usual ways. To them, and to you, your Majesty…good health.” He smiled at her, sipped his drink, and turned to look once out at the bar. It was a look he’d had ample occasion to practice on Guild business: not quite a challenging look, but more than simple acknowledgment. It was a look that said “Yeah, I see you, what of it?”

The gods were looking back at him, and most were smiling. The exception was Avei, who had swiveled around on her barstool to give him a look of weary disdain. Eserion, behind the bar, laughed aloud as he added a splash of whiskey to her glass. In the corner, Izara’s eyes twinkled merrily, brightly enough to be visible from across the room; beside her, Vesk, the god of bards, lifted his hands and patted them together lightly in a silent ovation. Both the chess players were staring at him now, Omnu with a gentle smile, Vidius wearing a grin of wry humor.

The Empress, when he turned back to her, looked decidedly less amused. “And I am left to wonder, still, at the exact nature of your apparently considerable interest in, and sympathy for, a certain goddess of cunning.”

“Oh,” he said softly, “so that’s it, then.”

“I have the Black Wreath running rampant in my Empire and in my city,” she went on, “more so than we had previously imagined. Aside from recent shenanigans in the Palace itself, an entire cell of them recently popped up in a little flyspeck town, with a suicide summoner and dwarven technology that we’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, Arachne bloody Tellwyrn demolished them before any useful questions could be asked, but the fact remains: they’re growing bolder, and stronger, at the same time their mistress is up to something well beyond her usual antics. This, obviously, is not acceptable.”

“Obviously,” he said dryly. “But if you’ll pardon my narcissism, what does it have to do with me?”

“Imperial Intelligence are the best in the world at what they do,” she said, absently patting Vex’s wrist, as one might acknowledge a favored pet, “but they face certain stark limits against the Wreath. To say nothing of the inherent challenges of chasing after diabolists and dark priests, we have no effective counter to Elilial’s gift of stealth. The Church doesn’t either, and while they are better equipped to contend with demons, they lack any personnel with the skill Lord Vex’s people have in this kind of skullduggery. Besides, I obviously cannot trust Justinian or any of his lackeys.”

“What, you don’t think I’m his lackey?”

“I don’t know whose lackey you are, if anyone’s,” she said evenly. “And that is where you may be exactly what we need. You said yourself that the Thieves’ Guild is very like the Black Wreath in its operations and general outlook.”

“The Guild is not going to start a war with the Wreath.”

“For innumerable reasons, obviously, no. But a man whose loyalties are stretched multiple ways to begin with provides deniability to all his putative masters.”

“Ahh,” he nodded, smiling, “now I see. If I were to go chasing after the Wreath, they wouldn’t know against whom to retaliate. Very clever. Quite elegant, really.”

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Of course, I’m absolutely not going to do it, but I do appreciate the merits of the idea.”

“I think you mistake my intentions,” she said with a smile. “You spent what had to have been most of your earnings in your first years as Bishop, not to mention the years in question, on a colossal research project just to build up a working understanding of Elilial’s psychology. Strange behavior, for a thief.”

“What, a man can’t have hobbies?”

“No. People like you…and like me…do not have hobbies, we have obsessions. One singular obsession for each of us, really, which fills our lives and colors every activity we undertake. You are an information man, Sweet, a connection man. You wanted to know the Black Lady’s ways for a reason.” Her smile widened a fraction of an inch. “You’re hunting her.”

“Or perhaps,” he offered, swirling his glass idly, “I’m looking to join her. She does run a most admirable outfit. Perhaps I already have.”

“And what would you do if you had? Wage war on the gods? Overthrow the Empire? No, Darling, she has nothing you want. You want the chase. We are talking about the single most challenging prey that has ever existed. I think if you ever manage to catch her, you’ll find yourself at a loss.”

“You presume to know me well, your Majesty.”

“Indeed so. And perhaps I am wrong.” Still she kept that smile, but her eyes burned with intensity. “I am not threatening you, nor will I ever. I’m not asking you to do anything. I am extending an offer.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“How is it the organized criminals always put it in the novels?” she mused. “You’ve done me a favor today. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position to do you a favor. Especially if it leads to progress in uprooting the Black Wreath from my city.”

Darling matched her smile. “Your Majesty has a fertile and eloquent imagination.”

“Thank you,” she said sweetly. “But my offer stands. Whatever aid I may lend you, should you need it in hunting the Wreath.” With that, she stood. Vex and Darling did likewise, as protocol demanded. On their feet, she was shorter than he, though not by much. Whereas most women of her breeding and upbringing would never miss a chance to look up at a man through their lashes, Eleanora tilted her head to gaze at him directly. “And, of course, should you decide that your loyalty lies against the Empire…I will not bother to threaten you then, either. You are a most valued subject, Antonio Darling.”

“There are not words in our inadequate mortal language for my appreciation at your acknowledgment, your Majesty,” he replied, bowing deeply.

“Thank you for your time, Bishop.”

He took the dismissal for what it was, backed up a step, and descended the stairs.

The gods were all watching him.

He nodded to Eserion, and then tipped Avei a wink. For just a moment he thought something very bad was about to happen to him, but Izara let out a peal of delighted laughter from across the room, and the goddess of war wordlessly turned her back on him. He didn’t breathe again until he was back outside, and not deeply until he had climbed the stone steps and stood safely on the streets of Tiraas. Already, the tense atmosphere within the Elysium was starting to fade like a dream.

Darling wondered, as he started walking, whether he would still be able to see the sign if he turned around. He didn’t check. His mind was already furiously at work, teasing apart the details of that conversation.

None of this made sense. The Empress had as much as accused him of having divided loyalties, offered her support, and then dismissed him. Vex, too, by implication. Those actions were totally self-contradictory. Why? One didn’t just baldly come out with such details right in front of the person one suspected of double-dealing, especially if one intended to secure that person’s aid. Traitorous people could be incredibly useful, but only if you knew they were traitorous and they didn’t know you knew. This disarming honesty…this was no way to play the game.

Unless…

Darling frowned as he walked, letting his feet carrying him home by sheer muscle memory.

Unless the game was not going in your favor, in which case the best move available was sometimes to introduce a little chaos. Forcibly change the board, realign the players, knock a few pieces out of place. It might improve your position, or might not. It was a gambit for when no sensible actions could lead to victory.

The Wreath, the gods, Elilial, Tellwyrn, the Church, the cults within the church…all swirled around and within the Empire, nipping at it from all directions. And, he now realized, the Empire, or at least its Empress, believed it was losing.

Interesting.

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