Tag Archives: General Panissar

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Inefficiency and waste were not tolerated in Toman Panissar’s army. Inefficiency and waste were inevitable in armies in general, but at the very least, they did not occur where he could (or was likely to) see them. As such, the headquarters of Imperial Command ran like dwarven clockwork. Uniformed troops and formally-attired civilians moved constantly here and there, but briskly and in an organized fashion, with an absolute minimum of talk and zero loitering. Everything was spotlessly clean, everything exactly in its place, everyone clearly acting purposefully and on specific business.

It was sort of amazing that she made it that far.

The door to the outer administrative complex swung open, as it did a thousand times a day, and a woman in business attire strode rapidly in, clutching a thick folder of papers under her arm. That, in and of itself, was not unusual. Her pace was a touch too rapid, though, and the folder bulged with scraps and stray corners of paper, which did not suit the tightly ordered aesthetic of the complex. She made a beeline for the guarded doors to the inner offices, ignoring all activity around her. The guards saw her coming and shifted to face her directly, but she was intercepted before making it even that far.

“Can I help you?” a tall soldier asked, stepping swiftly out from behind his desk and planting himself in her path. She practically skidded in order to stop in time, which didn’t cause him to flinch.

“Are you General Panissar?” the woman demanded.

“No, I am not,” he replied wryly. “Are you attached to the Army?”

“I’ll speak with the General,” she said curtly, trying to step around him.

He moved to obstruct her. “If you have an appointment, you can proceed to the receptionist on the second floor and wait. Otherwise, you’ll have to make an appointment, and depart in the meantime.”

“This is not a secured space,” she shot back. “Public presence is allowed.”

“This is Imperial Command,” he said, unimpressed. “No one is allowed to wander around at liberty. If you have specific business and a reason for being here—”

“I am legal counsel for soldiers of the Imperial Army pursuing action against ImCom at the highest level,” she barked. “Per the Writ of Duties, they are permitted to present their grievance directly to the requisite authority, which in this case is the General in command of the Army entire, as adjudged by a Grand Magistrate of the Tiraan Empire, and I am in fact obligated to present said case to said individual in person at the earliest possible date and hour in order to protect my clients who are adjudged to face undue hardship and/or danger in the course of presenting themselves in person, also according to said Grand Magistrate. Ergo, I shall now see the General, and you shall shove off out of my way!”

He finally drew back slightly, staring at her in something like awe. That entire monologue had been delivered almost too rapidly to follow, and she had paused for breath exactly once.

“Be that as it may,” the soldier said stiffly, “this is the headquarters for the entire army, and security requires—”

“Sued!” she thundered, ripping a sheet of paper from her folder and slapping it against his chest, where he caught it mostly out of reflex. “Obstruction of justice and interfering with a duly appointed agent of the law in the prosecution of her sworn duty! I’ll see you in court, asshole!”

At that, he was finally too flummoxed to evade her, and she managed to wriggle past him with the aggressive slipperiness of a particularly hungry eel. By that time, the eyes of nearly everyone in the vicinity was on her. Seemingly unperturbed by this, she resumed her course at a rapid trot toward the double doors to the secured section of Command. Both soldiers guarding the opening had now stepped in front of the doors directly, with weapons lifted and aimed at her.

“All right, boys, you want a piece of this?” the woman demanded, stomping to a halt directly in front of them. “Cos I brought enough for the whole class!”

“What the hell is going on out here?”

Soldiers throughout the vicinity snapped to attention, saluting, and the intruder whirled to face the rather diminutive, silver-haired man who had approached from the front of the room, likely through the same doors she had used to enter.

“Panissar!” the woman exclaimed, thrusting a hand into her folder to rummage. “My name is—”

“Bird Savaraad, attorney at law,” he interrupted, expression skeptical. “You’re known around here, ma’am. I asked what is going on.”

Savaraad had found the object she sought, apparently, a thick envelope, which she now whipped out of the folder (dislodging a few errant sheets) and wagged at him. “We will discuss the maltreatment of soldiers under your command who have retained me to handle their case!”

“That’s fine,” he grunted. “There’s a department to handle that. Sergeant Traas will escort you there and make an appointment. Excuse me.”

“Hold it right there!” she roared as he turned his back. “Per the judgment of Grant Magistrate Seluvid, I am authorized to present this matter to you in person!”

“Then make an appointment.” Panissar stopped, half-turning to give her a gimlet eye over his shoulder. “A Grand Magistrate’s order doesn’t authorize you to barge in here on your own damn schedule, or I’d be hearing of it from an Imperial courier, not you. You are disrupting operations in Imperial Command. Behave yourself, or be arrested. Your choice.”

The General turned back toward the exit and made one step before she bellowed again. “This matter will not wait on your bureaucracy, Panissar! Privates Andrew Finchley, Thomas Rook and Jacob Moriarty have an urgent case pertaining directly to treatment by a Han—”

“Take that woman into custody!” Panissar barked, whirling on her. Immediately, the two door guards stepped forward, seizing her by both arms. Two more soldiers smoothly rose from nearby desks to assume their position flanking the inner doors.

“Don’t even try it!” Savaraad shouted, not bothering to struggle except to tighten her grip on her folder. “People know where I am, General! You can’t hush up—”

She broke off as Panissar drew a wand from its holster at his belt and stepped forward, aiming the tip barely a foot from her nose.

“Ms. Savaraad,” he said quietly, “I strongly advise you to shut your mouth before you step in it and break something. You wanted my attention? You have it. Men, bring her to my office. You, keep the bellowing to a minimum. I am hardly going to disappear you from under the noses of hundreds of people, unless you create an unassailable pretext for doing so, which you’re about halfway to doing.”

The whole office was uncharacteristically silent, watching the soldiers ushering an also uncharacteristically silent Savaraad off after Panissar toward the stairs along the east wall of the huge chamber. At their foot, the General suddenly stopped and turned to glare across the assembled troops and attached personnel.

“Are you all bored?”

Instantly, there resumed a flurry of motion as everyone present rushed back to their work. Panissar grunted and continued up the stairs, followed by the lawyer and her guards.

The only man who remained still was the sergeant who had intercepted Savaraad in the first place, staring at the sheet of paper in his hand.

“Hey, Traas.” Another soldier leaned out from behind her own desk. “Did she actually subpoena you?”

Traas blinked at the paper bemusedly, then turned it so she could see its face. “This is a receipt from a housecleaning service.”


“Thank you, gentlemen,” Panissar said to the two soldiers. “Dismissed. Shut the door.”

Both released Savaraad, saluted, and quickly trooped back out, closing the office door behind them as ordered.

The lawyer herself peered quickly around the room through narrowed eyes. It suited Panissar’s reputation: orderly, utilitarian, and neither as large nor as grandiose as his high rank would entitle him to have. Any mid-level bureaucratic functionary might have worked out of this space, save for the room’s only decorations, which consisted of weapons both bladed and modern in glass cases hung along the walls.

“Your reputation precedes you,” Panissar said, stepping around behind the desk and seating himself. Notably, there was no chair in front. “I’m missing lunch with my wife right now because fortunately, someone thought to warn me when you came stomping into the building as if you planned to slay a dragon. So far, you’re every bit as annoying as rumor suggests.”

“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said grimly, brandishing the envelope at him.

“You are also reputed to be a damn good lawyer,” he continued, staring flatly up at her, “and to care in all sincerity for the outcome of your cases and the well-being of your clients. So I have to ask, Savaraad, what the hell were you thinking blurting out details about those three in the middle of a public space where anyone could hear?”

“I was thinking,” she said smugly, “that ImCom’s interest here is to hush up the whole affair, and threatening to poke a hole in that was the best way to motivate you off your ass. I don’t make idle threats or bluffs, by the way. This case will not go away if I suddenly do. In fact, I’ve taken steps to ensure it will get swiftly and dramatically more difficult for you to handle, should that occur.”

“You’re thinking of Imperial Intelligence,” he grunted. “Believe me, if I were in the habit of using wands and oubliettes on idiots who waste my time, this city would be significantly depopulated. So, those three boys are tired of cooling their heels in Last Rock, is that it?”

“You bet your stars, bucko.” She slapped the envelope down on the desk. “In light of the immediate and significant threat to their well-being posed by their own chain of command, Grand Magistrate Seluvid has issued the orders you see before you, including that the matter is to be brought directly to the highest commanding officer of the Army, and may be kept classified in spite of your wishes if I, as their designated legal counsel, should deem it necessary. I want those men honorably discharged from the Army and relieved of all military obligation to the Silver Throne, effective immediately, with retirement benefits suitable for—”

“It’s no surprise you took this to the Grand Magistrate least sympathetic toward the military,” he interrupted. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you got this done so quickly, either. But much as I may frequently want to stuff Seluvid up his own overfed ass—and you may feel free to quote me next time you see him—the man is in no way corrupt. I could only wish he had something like that for me to hold over him. So I have to ask, Savaraad. Exactly what cock-and-bull story did you feed him to get this rushed through? That post may be career suicide, but it’s the cushiest one in the whole damn army. If those boys were in any danger from Tellwyrn or her brats, they’d have noticed it long before now.”

“Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty have offered no complaint about their post, their hostess or their duties until the events of the last week,” she snapped. “Don’t try to deflect me, Panissar, I weave webs around savvier bastards than you before I’m properly awake in the morning. This is related to the sudden pattern of threats to them by the Hand of the Emperor on site.”

Panissar suddenly narrowed his eyes, his face otherwise blank. “What threats?”

“Everything is right there in—”

“Lady, it’s a slow day when I can be arsed to read the paperwork I actually have to read. You’re here, you know the case. Tell me what the Hand did to those soldiers.”

Savaraad actually blinked, taken aback by the sudden intensity in his tone. “He… Do I infer, General, that you are actually unaware of—”

“Do you want to go in an oubliette? Because I actually do have them. Might as well put the space to use if you’re just going to chap my ass.”

She sneered, but answered. “The Hand of the Emperor present at Last Rock, in addition to suddenly exhibiting a pattern of inappropriately aggressive behavior, has attempted to blackmail Professor Tellwyrn into complying with him by threatening harm to my clients. This is obviously a gigantic breach of—”

“So that explains the bluster and shenanigans,” Panissar grunted. “You have no case. A Hand of the Emperor can do whatever the hell he likes with Imperial soldiers, period.”

“Oh, I think you’ll find—”

“Unless,” the General said, “someone puts a stop to it. Through the kind of backroom dealing you came in here to try to pull.” He leaned backward in his chair, peering at her through narrowed eyes. “Hmm. All right, first things first. Honorable discharge with commendations for extraordinary service to the Silver Throne. In fact, I’ll arrange for the Golden Crescent for each of them. That’ll ensure an officer’s pension despite their brief enlistment and low rank. It’s not going to be enough, though.” He abruptly leaned forward, stabbing one finger down onto the desktop. “I assume you’ve got those boys somewhere secure? Tell me they’re not still at Last Rock.”

Savaraad snorted and folded her arms, cradling her thick folder in front of her chest. “Please, this is hardly my first case. Of course I have them safe. Why are you suddenly so accommodating?”

“Because I will not have my men thrown away,” he snapped. “I’ve stuck my neck out for those boys once already, and I didn’t do it so they could just run afoul of Imperial politics. They’re shitty soldiers by any reckoning, but they’re good men, and fiercely loyal to their Emperor. In my military opinion, the latter two traits are more important overall to society than the first one. And that’s our problem, Savaraad; getting them out of the Army won’t be enough. If that Hand has his eye on them, his authority will be only slightly diminished by them being out of the service, and his resources not diminished at all. Once they’re honored and discharged, there’ll be a trail he can follow right to them.”

She narrowed her own eyes. “This is some serious monkey business, Panissar. What makes you think a Hand of the Emperor would do something so petty, and why are you willing to work against him on behalf of three enlisted nobodies?”

“You have no need for those details, Savaraad,” he said curtly.

“Oh, no you don’t. My clients are already in jeopardy because of Imperial politics, as you call them. I’m not about to let—”

“Savaraad, do you have the faintest idea why those men were quartered at the University at Last Rock in the first place?”

“Omnu’s balls, do you never tire of interrupting people?” She let out a sharp huff of irritation. “And no, they only said the matter was classified.”

“Sealed to the Throne, in fact,” he said grimly. “So is the matter you are now trying to butt into. I told you, I don’t disappear people for irritating me. I am, however, fully capable of getting rid of someone who is presenting an authentic threat to Imperial security, which you are in danger of doing. So let me warn you right now: any business pertaining to Hands of the Emperor is not to be discussed outside the details of this case, and then only with your clients and with me. Test me on this, and I will immediately hand you off to Lord Vex, and I can’t honestly promise that he doesn’t disappear people who annoy him. For now,” he added in a less intense tone, relaxing back into his chair again, “I’ll need to be in touch with Intelligence anyway with regard to those boys. Vex isn’t going to consider this a priority, but I will ride his ass in whatever way necessary to get it done.”

“You plan to have Imperial Intelligence hide my clients?” she asked skeptically.

Panissar shook his head. “I mean to have them put a watch on those men’s families.”

“Surely you don’t think they are in danger.”

“I don’t think that, no, but I’m also not ready to rule it out, and in no mood to take risks with this business. And I’m serious, Savaraad—you need to stop asking questions about this, for your sake and that of your clients. As for them, they’ll have to be hidden through non-governmental means if they’re to be kept safe; any other means will leave a trail for…whoever may be after them. If you’re confident of your own security, they may stay where they are till this matter resolves itself, which should be soon. However…” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “As I recall, the privates in question tested as high on devotion to their Emperor as they did low on overall competence. That’s more or less the starting point of all their problems. Does that agree with your own impressions?”

“They’ve made quite a point of it, in fact,” she said pensively. “Moriarty insisted on having affidavits affirming their loyalty to the Emperor included in those documents you’re so determined to ignore. They make a point of emphasizing that taking this action is a last resort, and that they mean no reflection against the Emperor or the Army by it.”

Panissar looked at the envelope lying on his desk, then back up at her. “Of course, you could draw up something like that in an afternoon.”

“Please, there’s no need to be insulting,” she said scornfully. “Ten minutes, and that because I hadn’t had my coffee yet.”

“It’s still a legal service, and it brings up a valid question. You don’t come cheap, Savaraad, nor does anyone in your firm. What it would cost to have someone like you kick up this kind of fuss is more than those three collectively make in a year. Who’s paying for this?”

She raised a supercilious eyebrow. “I’m sure you are aware, General Panissar, that such details are kept strictly private. You will require the order of a Grand Magistrate to have them divulged, and even then, the matter is subject to appeal by both my clients and their financier before it can be executed.”

“So they do have a financier.”

“Oh, please, don’t act like you scored a point,” she said disdainfully. “Of course they do, you said it yourself. Those three definitely don’t have the money to engage someone of my caliber.”

He grunted. “Fine. As I was saying, then. We’ll need to have protective measures in place before putting their discharge through. Before we do that, though, I want you to take a message back to your clients; the answer will determine how, exactly, we proceed.”

“I’m listening,” she said warily.

“If they just want to be hidden, I can arrange that, or they can stay wherever you’ve got them, if you’re certain it’s secure. However, right now there happens to be a need for men loyal to the Throne who are engaged through no agency that the government itself can trace. This work is directly relevant to the mess that’s put them in this pickle: I want to make it very clear up front that it will be dangerous. That’s the question you need to put to them, Savaraad. There’ll be no condemnation from me if they just want to hide, all things considered. But.” He folded his arms on the desk, gazing seriously up at her. “Just because the Army doesn’t need them does not mean their Emperor doesn’t…if they are still willing to serve.”

“You want to put those three into some kind of…secret service?” she asked skeptically. “Far be it from me to belittle a client in good standing, but I think it’s a matter of record that none of them are particularly impressive specimens.”

“I don’t need them to march in formation or shoot straight,” he replied. “They’ve already proven their ability to keep their mouths shut and survive ridiculous catastrophes. In fact, that’s pretty much the point.” He smiled thinly. “There are well-trained, powerful people already working on this, but we can’t all be heroes. Even in the darkest hours, when extraordinary efforts are demanded of those who can offer them, somebody needs to fetch and carry.”

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

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

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

Nah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can that be done?”

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

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

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

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

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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12 – 2

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

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

Panissar subsided with a grunt, looking not particularly mollified.

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like those were,” Bishop Darling noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shot a long look at Panissar, who sighed.

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

“How is that proceeding?” the Hand inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Three of us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you ever…wondered?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Ariel.”

“My pleasure.”

“Gaaaabe,” Toby said warningly.

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

“And approximately twice your age.”

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

Toby cleared his throat. “And yet…?”

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

“To give yourself a tremendous amount of credit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do?” Gabriel demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Urusai!” Ekoi snarled at him.

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

Then, with a characteristic soft pop, help arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She took your pants,” Gabriel noted.

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

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

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

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

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

“…what kinds of comments would these be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me.”

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

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

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

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9 – 1

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The Imperial Guard were well familiar with Underminister Darouzheh, which undoubtedly saved his life when he burst in on the Emperor and Empress having a state lunch with the Sifanese ambassador. Indeed, the fact that he was well known around the Imperial Palace was the only reason he could have possibly been permitted to dash pell-mell through its halls the way he apparently had, to judge by his breathless state of near-collapse upon entering.

Instantly, five staves were pointing at him, humming audibly with conjured destruction waiting to be unleashed. More guards moved to cover the windows and doors in case of further intruders, while the currently present Hand of the Emperor placed himself between his liege and the intruder so rapidly he almost appeared to have teleported.

Darouzheh completely ignored all of this.

“Your Majesties,” he gasped, doubling over. His paunchy frame was clearly not designed for the kind of exertion he had just experienced. “Emergency! Dragons!”

With that, he slumped forward, panting so hard he could barely stand. The guards powered down and lowered their weapons, the nearest actually stepping over to gently brace the Underminister lest he collapse entirely. At a flick of the Empress’s fingers, a maid darted forward to pour a carafe of water, which she carried to the gasping bureaucrat.

Sharidan had risen to his feet, gently moving the Hand aside with a touch to his shoulder. Ambassador Fujimatsu finally set down his teacup, studying the scene with admirable calm.

“That,” Eleanora said flatly, “is an unacceptable combination of words.”


 

“Dragons,” Darling said, “and chaos.”

“That’s a bad combination of words,” McGraw noted.

“Don’t I know it,” the Bishop replied, his expression serious. “Unfortunately, that’s not the scary part.”

“How is that not the scary part?” Billie demanded. “Why is there always a scarier part?”

They sat in the comfortable downstairs parlor in the Bishop’s home, Darling in his customary seat at the head of the coffee table, the others around it. No one had yet commented on Mary’s absence from the group, but it was even more palpable than her presence. When she was there, she had a way of quietly deflecting attention from herself.

“This is all I’ve been getting out of the Archpope’s oracular resources for the last week,” Darling continued. “You probably know how it is with oracles—or you may not, Justinian does seem to have a good percentage of them squirreled away. It’s all ‘that from beyond which is not,’ and ‘the titans of two forms,’ and an innumerable throng of vague metaphors to that effect. These things are difficult to read at the best of times; it took me a solid day’s work to suss out the consistent themes. Dragons, and chaos.”

“I think I see what the scary part is,” Joe murmured. “Now, granted, all I know about oracles is from readin’, and most of what I’ve read I suspect is more fictional than it liked to pretend, but any event in which all the oracles shut down and refuse to talk about anything but a coming disaster…”

“Yes,” Darling said, nodding at him. “In fact, that’s more than just common sense. This is a recognized apocalyptic portent.”

“Never staved off an apocalypse,” Billie said thoughtfully. “Bet that’s a feather in the ol’ cap, an’ no mistake.”

“Sounds like a titanic pain in the ass even for those who survive it,” Weaver grunted. “Who else knows about this?”

“And now we come to the complicating factor,” Darling said with a sigh. “Obviously, Justinian knows. There are the other Bishops who have access to his oracles, too; I don’t know how frequently any of them make use of the resource, but if they’ve tried in the last week, they know. None of them have mentioned it to me. What the Empire does or does not know I can’t be sure. I passed the warning on to the Hand of the Emperor with whom I work, and was told that the matter had been foreseen a good long time ago and the Empire has resources in place.” He shrugged.

“Just who are these other Bishops?” Joe asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” Darling said, waving a hand. “Justinian’s the one who demands our attention.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Darling,” Joe replied very evenly, “but we are well past the point of that bein’ an acceptable answer.”

A momentary silence fell, Darling lifting his eyebrows in an expression of mild surprise. Standing by the door, Price shifted her head infinitesimally, focusing her attention on Joe.

“After that stunt you pulled this spring,” the Kid continued, staring at the Bishop, “I am just about done gettin’ the runaround from you. Pardon my pushiness, but when I ask for details, you provide details or I walk out.”

Weaver snorted softly. Billie raised an eyebrow, turning to regard the Bishop expectantly.

“Well,” Darling said with a slight smile. “Upon reflection, I really don’t have any counter to that, do I? Fair enough. Not that I think it’s any concern of yours and I am possibly risking clerical censure by sharing the details, but the Bishops of Avei, Shaath and Izara also have access to the Church’s hidden oracles.”

“That,” McGraw mused, “is a right peculiar assortment.”

“Bishop Syrinx has been off in Viridill on some Avenist business for the last few weeks,” Darling continued, “and I dismiss Varanus and Snowe from consideration because I’ve had indication several times before that both are fully behind his Holiness in whatever he chooses to do. Anyhow, this leads us back to the problem at hand, and what we intend to do about it.”

“Dragons and chaos,” Billie mused, kicking her legs idly. Sitting on the edge of the loveseat as she was, her feet didn’t nearly reach the floor. “Well, it does bring to mind an obvious answer, dunnit? Shame that’s almost certainly an ol’ wives’ tale.”

“Y’mean Belosiphon?” McGraw replied. “Or however you pronounce it.”

“You said it correctly,” Weaver said, rolling his eyes. “Which is kind of impressive when it comes to any dragon’s name. Tell me, Elias, does this ‘confused old man’ act usually succeed in deflecting suspicion?”

“Sorry, sonny,” McGraw said innocently, tugging his earlobe. “You’ll have to speak up, I’m a mite deaf on this side.”

“Yeah, well, point being,” Billie said with a grin, “we’re talkin’ about a legend from the time of the Elder Gods. You’re a bard, Damian, you know as well as I that any tale from that long ago’s not gonna have more’n a smidge of fact in its lineage.”

“Don’t use my first name,” Weaver growled.

“Yes, quite so,” Darling said, nodding seriously. “It’s inconceivable that there could really have been a chaos dragon, and the story is so old and from a time of such confusion that it’s just not sensible to give it any credence. So, imagine my surprise when I learned that the Church has specific records of Belosiphon, and knows roughly where his skull is buried.”

“Typical,” Joe muttered.

“Are you rubbin’ me ankles?” Billie demanded.

“I…have no idea,” Darling said, blinking.

Weaver shrugged. “Doesn’t particularly surprise me. One of the gods is chaos-tainted; why not a dragon? If anything, the odd thing is how no dragons since have ended up that way.”

“Nothin’ odd about that,” McGraw said. “Dragons tend to be wiser sorts than the average run of mortals, even before they’ve lived a few thousand years. Takes somebody exceptionally stupid to meddle with the powers of chaos.”

“Which is precisely the issue,” Darling said firmly. “Everytime a significant chaos artifact has surfaced, some imbecile made a good effort at seizing and using it. You being adventurers, I’m sure you know most of those stories, and how they ended. With the oracles giving warning, we can make two solid assumptions: at the intersection of ‘dragons’ and ‘chaos’ is Belosiphon the Black, and action has to be taken to prevent someone from meddling with his skull. It’s in the northernmost region of Upper Stalwar Province. That’s right about where the plains meet the desert in a particularly unappetizing little corner of flat scrubland, just below the foothills where the Dwarnskolds and the Stalrange intersect.”

“I’ve been there,” McGraw said, nodding. “The Badlands. Beautiful country, if you don’t have to live in it.”

“There’s actually a place called the Badlands?” Weaver said scornfully.

“Aye,” Billie replied with a grin. “After tryin’ to keep their butts alive in it, the residents were too worn out to think of anythin’ more poetic.”

“Here’s where it gets even more interesting,” Darling continued, his expression grim. “I’ve been rooting around in every official record I could find, both Church and Imperial. The actual location of Belosiphon’s skull is not known, merely the general region, but there are hints that more precise records do exist. It is worth mentioning, here, that I do not have access to all of Justinian’s hidden archives. Second, the Empire has almost no presence in the area. Third, this is mining country. Silver, copper, turquoise and coal. It was hit almost as hard as the dwarven kingdoms by the Narisian treaty and all those shipments of free Underworld ore, but people do still dig there. And prospect.”

“What better way to stumble across buried horrors,” Joe murmured, staring at the table.

“Justinian has not mentioned anything about it to me,” Darling continued, “nor I to him. He surely would have…unless this is to be another act in our ongoing cold war of misinformation.”

“And if he had the same idea you did,” McGraw said, frowning, “who better to send after something like this than adventurers?”

“Which means,” Weaver growled, “Khadizroth and the Jackal. And whoever else he’s rounded up.”

“Peachy!” Billie said, grinning psychotically and cracking her knuckles. “I have been just itchin’ fer another crack at those two assholes.”

“Not to be a wet blanket,” said Joe, “but we fought them to a bare stalemate last time, and that was with the aid of our most powerful member, who is not even here.”

A glum silence descended upon the room.

“Justinian’s silence on the matter does strongly indicate to me that he is going to use his adventurers,” Darling said gravely. “There are things he keeps from me, but he had to know I would discover what the oracles were doing. This is the only topic on which we remain mutually silent, both knowing that we both know what’s going on. So yes, what we are talking about here is sending you off to contend with the dragon and the assassin, not to mention whoever else—because I haven’t a clue who else he might have found—with the quest for an artifact of unspeakable danger as the backdrop and battlefield. I’ve gotta level with you, folks: this is above and beyond the call. If you don’t want to go, I’ll not hold you in violation of our agreement. I will still be at work getting your answers, though I’m afraid that has to wait until the oracles start speaking again.”

“Hell with that,” Billie snorted. “We’re in. Let’s skip the part where we all go ’round the table and agree—you all know damn well you all want your payback, fer a variety o’ reasons. But Joe’s got the right of it. We need to find Mary. Anybody got a clue where she is?”

“All I know,” Darling said, “is that another elf came here looking for her a few weeks back.”

“Who?” Joe asked.

“Nobody I knew,” Darling said with a shrug. “She was sent by Professor Tellwyrn, though. Elder Sheyann, I think her name was.”

“Tellwyrn?” Weaver said, narrowing his eyes.

“Did you say Sheyann?” Joe exclaimed.

“Ah, yes, I did,” Darling said, looking at him oddly. “Don’t tell me you know her.”

“Well, I don’t so much know her, but you don’t grow up in Sarasio without hearing the name. She’s the most senior of the Elders in the nearby grove.”

“Huh,” Darling mused. “Well. That gives us two places to start looking for Mary: Sarasio and Last Rock. Because, to be frank, we have a good bit of preparatory work to do before setting off on this particular adventure. Quite apart from the need to catch the Crow, there’s the question of what to do with the skull of Belosiphon itself. Pretty much the only certainty is that Justinian cannot be allowed to get his grabbers on it.”

“We could hand it over to the Empire?” Joe suggested.

“Assuming we can even handle something like that,” Weaver said. “Chaos is not healthy to be around.”

“Also,” Darling said firmly, “with all respect to his Majesty’s government, it is a government. I will sleep better it it does not get its hands on this slice of unimaginable destructive power. And I sure as hell don’t want the thing. I have to admit I’m against a wall here, my friends. This is outside the purview of either a thief or a priest. How do you dispose of a chaos artifact?”

“Destroy it,” said Joe.

“Very bad idea,” McGraw said emphatically. “You destroy a thing like that, and what you’re left with is pieces of said thing. Do your job well, reduce it to dust and smoke, and it disseminates into the air, the ground, the water, tainting the whole region for… Who knows? Centuries, millennia, maybe forever. Or you may get bigger pieces, which sure as the tides will get strewn to the four corners of the earth to work a thousand smaller mischiefs until some giftedly sinister idjit goes on an epic quest to gather ’em all up and ruin everyone’s day.”

“Okay,” Joe said slowly. “So, no destroying. That was my last idea. Sorry.”

“It’s simple enough,” said Weaver. “We’ll take it to Arachne.”

They all stared at him.

“Are you quintessentially outta your gourd?” Billie demanded. “Of all the people who does not need to get her hands on a chaos artifact—”

“I’m talking about the only person who probably should,” Weaver shot back. “Let’s face it, by any standard you could choose to apply, Arachne is a giant bitch.”

“Now, see here,” Joe began, scowling.

“For that reason,” Weaver continued loudly, “she doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Most of the world has no idea how many times she’s rescued it from the brink. With regard to chaos artifacts in particular, she’s already got two. Arachne Tellwyrn owns the Book of Chaos and the Mask of Calomnar. She’s got them both tucked away in a sealed pocket dimension where nobody can get at them and they can’t affect the mortal plane. In fact, she found the Book of Chaos twice, and made this particular setup after someone dug it up from its first hiding place. She has the sense not to meddle with chaos and the power to secure it. It’s simple. We take the skull to Arachne, and neither the Church nor the Empire nor anybody else will ever see the damn thing again.”

“Well,” McGraw mused, “that sounds like a workable solution, indeed, if you don’t pause to consider how irate the lady will be to have a thing like that dropped on her doorstep.”

“Omnu’s balls, we’re not gonna just drop it at the University,” Weaver said scathingly. “Arachne’s one of our leads in tracking down Mary anyway, right? So we go to Last Rock, ask if she’s seen the Crow and tell her what’s up so she knows to prepare a place for Belosiphon’s skull. She might even help retrieve it.”

“Tellwyrn is not going to cross the Church’s agents directly,” Darling said, frowning. “Her carefully protected neutrality wouldn’t survive that; she won’t risk her students’ safety by dragging the University into world politics. For that reason, we will tell her the whole situation, so she doesn’t accidentally stumble into that, blame us for tricking her and blast us all to ashes.”

“I like this plan,” Billie said brightly. “Anything that ends with me not gettin’ blasted to ash is aces in my book!”

“I’ll have to sit that stretch of it out,” McGraw said with a rueful grin. “I’m already on record as getting’ the ash treatment if I show my face in Last Rock.”

“What’d you do?” Joe said, frowning.

“Well, it’s a long—”

The old wizard broke off suddenly, grabbing his staff and half-rising. Joe bounded to his feet in the same moment. Price, by the door, suddenly zipped across the room to hover protectively over Darling’s shoulder.

“What?” the Bishop demanded, looking around at them. “What’s going on?”

“Someone has just teleported into the house, your Grace,” Price said in a low voice.

Weaver also got to his feet, scowling and placing a hand on his holstered wand. Billie stood up on the loveseat, tucking both hands into pouches at her belt.

There came a sharp knock at the closed door of the parlor.

Darling raised his eyebrows. “Come in?”

The door opened, and a young woman in Army uniform stepped in and saluted. Her insignia had a blue eye behind the standard Imperial gryphon, the mark of a Tiraan battlemage.

“Pardon the interruption, your Grace,” she said in a clipped tone. “Your presence is urgently requested at the Palace by Lord Vex.”

“What’s going on?” Darling demanded, rising.

The mage glanced briefly but pointedly around the group. “My orders are to teleport you to the Palace, your Grace,” she said in a level tone. “I’m sure you will be fully briefed once there.”

“Ominous,” Weaver said.

“Well, my friends, I guess we’ll have to continue this conversation later,” said Darling, stepping carefully around McGraw and toward the Army mage. “In fact, though… Given the time frame involved, please go ahead and pursue the avenue we were just discussing. We’ll regroup tomorrow, or whenever you get back, hopefully all with more information. All right, Lieutenant, I’m all yours. Let’s go see what’s so urgent, shall we?”


 

“We’re receiving up-to-the-minute reports via telescroll,” General Panissar said. “Based on their flight path, this gate seems the most probable point of arrival. They are unmistakably making for Tiraas.”

“What can you tell me about the path they have taken, General?” the Lady asked.

“Oddly meandering,” Panissar said with a frown. “We are tentatively not considering this an attack. Dragons can be upon you from miles away before you know they’re even in the province, if that’s what they want. These four have been gliding all the way from north of Calderaas, tracking back and forth as if to deliberately waste time. Lord Vex is of the opinion that they want to be seen, to give us time to prepare.”

“Lord Vex is correct,” she replied, nodding. Lady Asfaneh Shavayad was a stately woman in her middle years, and apparently the leading expert on dragons in the Imperial Diplomatic Corps. That was the only explanation Panissar had been given as to why she was in command of this operation. Standing calmly in the main gate to the fortified border town, which she had insisted would remain open, she glanced around at the assembled soldiers, clearly considering them even as she continued to speak. “This is their custom when approaching one another, as well. It is a sign that they come in peace, seeking to talk.”

“Odd that they’ve never wanted to talk before,” Panissar growled.

“Indeed,” said Lady Asfaneh. “This is unprecedented for several reasons. Dragons are famously solitary creatures, and when they do associate, they markedly prefer the company of those of their own color. Are you certain of your intelligence regarding this group’s composition?”

“As certain as I was the last time you asked,” he grunted, choosing not to react to the amused look she gave him. “Red, gold, green and blue, one of each.”

“Very well,” she said, folding her hands in front of her, still a picture of serenity. “We shall see soon enough what they want. Are the tower artillery emplacements positioned as I said?”

Panissar nodded, his own expression not lightening. “With all due respect, Lady Asfaneh, I do not see the wisdom in disarming ourselves with a threat of this magnitude approaching.”

“It is symbolic,” she said calmly. “In any case, your mag cannons would not be useful against dragons.”

“We’ve brought down a dragon before with a mag cannon.”

“I am very familiar with the accounts of that incident, General, and I’m sure you are aware that it was quite possibly the luckiest shot in all of recorded history. If this does come to violence, the strike teams will be our best hope by far.” She nodded at the six teams which had assembled in the avenue behind them. “The presence of these armed soldiers is a show of our strength; they will not begrudge us that, and in fact will likely respect it. Aiming our largest and most visibly powerful weapons at them, however, is a provocation. Keep them pointed at the sky and their operators visibly absent from the controls. We must hope that violence does not occur. No one has ever fought off four dragons.”

“You don’t need to tell me that,” he said quietly.

There came a faint buzzing noise, followed by a sharp pop, and an Army battlemage materialized beside them, saluting. “General Panissar! Newest report from Madouris on the dragons’ approach. ETA less than five minutes.”

“Thank you, soldier,” Panissar said, nodding to him. “Colonel Ontambe! Is the area cleared of civilians?”

“Evacuation just completed, sir,” the Colonel replied, saluting as he strode up to them. “The last of the town’s residents have been moved into the city. Only military and diplomatic personnel are left here.”

“Then we wait,” Lady Asfaneh whispered, eyes on the horizon to the north.

For all that it was possibly the tensest seconds of their lives, it was considerably less than five minutes. The assembled soldiers stiffened further, even Panissar drawing in a sharp breath, as the four massive forms suddenly appeared in the sky above the northern foothills, gliding around in a wide arc as if to survey the city from a distance as they passed.

“Well,” he murmured, eyes glued to the four titans, “I suppose they could be just passing by…”

This time, Lady Asfaneh didn’t even spare him a glance.

They were not just passing by. The dragons wheeled all the way around, pumping their wings as they descended to the flat ground on the outskirts of the border town. This was the widest stretch of highway in the region, close as it was to the gates of the city itself, but there was not room for even two of them to land side-by-side. They settled to the earth in a formation that nearly rivaled the fortress itself in size.

“Gods be good,” Colonel Ontambe whispered. “Four of them. One of each.”

“Report to rear command, soldier,” Panissar said quietly. “You’ll lead his Majesty’s army if I fall.”

Ontambe, he reflected as the man saluted and strode off, was too old and too seasoned a soldier to publicly lose composure like that, but considering the circumstances, he was inclined to be somewhat lenient.

It was all Panissar could do not to take a step backward as the four dragons approached them on foot. Beside him, Lady Asfaneh’s composure remained totally uncracked.

Fortunately, they shifted as they neared. They were still an impressive sight in their human-sized forms, and not merely because of the palpable aura of majesty that emanated from them. Panissar had never met a dragon before, but he’d been briefed on this effect and steeled himself against it; these creatures were powerful beings, nothing more, and did not deserve the awe he felt welling up in him. At least they were marginally less terrifying this way.

In the lead by half a step came the gold dragon, dressed in golden armor and with a two-handed sword as long as Panissar was tall slung on his back. The blue wore robes more elaborately decorated than what the ladies of the court wore to formal balls. His cobalt hair was as exquisitely coiffed, too, and his fingers glittered with jewelry. The other two were less over-the-top; the green dressed simply in wood elf fashion, with a blousy-sleeved green shirt and soft leather vest, trousers and moccasins. The red dragon looked like he belonged on the cover of one of the tawdry novels Marie pretended not to enjoy, with his improbably tight pants and ruffled shirt unlaced down to his navel, both black.

They came to a stop a few yards distant, and then to the General’s astonishment, all four bowed deeply.

“Good day,” said the gold dragon, straightening up. “We apologize for so abruptly intruding upon you, but there is a lack of standing traditions for making such an approach as this. I am Ampophrenon the Gold. With me are Zanzayed the Blue, Razzavinax the Red, and Varsinostro the Green. We most humbly request an audience with his Imperial Majesty Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian.”

“Greetings, exalted ones, and welcome to Tiraas,” Lady Asfaneh replied, executing a deep and flawless curtsy. A half-second belatedly, Panissar bowed from the waist. “I am the Lady Asfaneh of House Shavayad, and it is my honor to be the Emperor’s servant in the diplomatic arts. With me is General Toman Panissar, who commands the Empire’s armies. What brings you to seek our Emperor’s ear?”

“We will discuss that with his Majesty,” Ampophrenon said, as calmly as ever.

The blue dragon cleared his throat. “Do you remember, Puff, when you asked me to warn you if you were being overbearing?”

The gold tightened his lips, half-turning to stare at his companion. “It was my assumption you would do so in private, Zanzayed.”

“Yes, and your proclivity for these assumptions is half the problem,” the blue said with a irrepressible smile. “Considering our aims here, it does these people good to see us as individuals with flaws. Such as, for example, a lack of social skills. Be nice to the Lady Shavayad, please. She can’t just bring four giant avatars of destruction into the Emperor’s presence without something to go on.”

“My companions speak truth,” Razzavinax added, smiling. Considering that he was a red dragon, he oddly seemed the most personable and at ease of the four. “Simply put, dear lady and honored general, we have come to announce the formation of our government.”

“Your…government?” Finally, Lady Asfaneh’s composure flickered for a moment.

“Indeed,” Ampophrenon said solemnly, returning the full weight of his attention to her. “No longer will we be as individuals, alone before the world. We stand together, as do your own races. We have come here, today, to be counted among the nations of the earth. The Conclave seeks now to open formal diplomatic relations with the Tiraan Empire.”

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5 – 11

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Fairy lamps blazed everywhere, their golden auras driving all shadows from the front of the manor. A line of carriages, some few drawn by horses but most of the modern enchanted variety, wound through the circular driveway, depositing their elegantly-dressed riders directly before the broad steps that rose to the mansion’s towering doors. Guards were everywhere, soldiers in the navy uniforms of the Imperial Army, covering multiple vantage points with staves at the ready. Others milled about, too, in addition to the trickle of wealthy guests making their way into the party. Some loitered near the carriage line or in the surrounding gardens, most chit-chatting idly while in truth watching like hawks, ready to swoop down upon any morsel of social advantage. More than a few of those who had already attained entry lined balconies extending from the front of the building, gazing down on the people below.

As an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage pulled out of the way, an impossibly sleek and low-slung roadster eased into its place directly before the walkway to the doors, the arcane blue of its running lights glaring even in the brightly-lit garden. Necks were craned and avid faces marked its progress; this glossy new model was the very latest thing off the Falconer lines. There couldn’t have been a dozen on the roads in the whole province. Its driver, a figure in a sharply-tailored tuxedo, hopped lightly down from the master seat, stepping around to open the door of the passenger compartment, bowing and extending a hand.

The onlookers stared intently, quite a few forgetting to pretend they weren’t watching, as the driver helped a petite drow woman down to the path. Whispers broke out on all sides as the roadster, itself a novelty, continued to disgorge fascinating passengers: a short brown girl in a richly-embroidered blue coat that swept to her ankles, and then a blonde woman in the dress uniform of the Silver Legions, complete with silver armor. As they lit on the path, the soldier rather stiffly draped her white cape about her shoulders and the young Punaji woman settled a broad-brimmed hat bristling with feathers on her head. A ball of light, somewhat hard to see in the glare of fairy lamps, darted out of the carriage’s open door and floated around their heads energetically, bobbing in apparent excitement. The driver strolled forward in the lead, the drow on her—her!—arm, and casually tossed the roadster’s control rune to a uniformed footman.

“You probably could’ve arranged a driver for us,” Ruda commented as the party ascended the steps.

“A Falconer is never driven,” Teal replied, grinning over her shoulder. “We drive.”

Her bravado diminished somewhat when they arrived at the top of the stairs. The entrance was flanked by four soldiers at attention, supervised by a supercilious-looking young man in black livery.

“Good evening, ladies,” he intoned, sweeping his gaze quickly across them. If he felt any surprise at their group’s composition, he was too professional to show it. “Invitations, please?”

Teal hunched her shoulders slightly, opening her mouth to speak, but Shaeine beat her to it.

“I’m afraid we arrived in the city too recently to have received such consideration,” she said smoothly. “As General Panissar would surely not wish to be embarrassed by this oversight, we do not wish to press the issue.”

The servant looked serenely unimpressed. “Be that as it may, I am afraid this event is strictly by invitation only.”

“I told you so,” Fross stage whispered.

“How about we make a deal, then,” Ruda suggested, pushing forward and grinning broadly. “We’ll tell you who we are, and then take bets on how long you stay employed when your boss finds out you turned us away.”


 

Toman Panissar liked things simple, and in this he was usually thwarted. These absurdly over-the-top social events were a perfect case in point, and a painful reality of his exalted rank. It was impossible for the commander of the Empire’s military to avoid rubbing elbows with the high and mighty, unwise to leave all such rubbing up to them to initiate, and apparently unacceptable to entertain them in anything less than the absurd fashion to which they were accustomed. The necessity of these idiotic, wasteful spectacles was the only reason he had purchased this manor, which was itself the most humble residence he felt he could get away with. He and his wife lived in all of two rooms, in what had been an apartment for the residence’s master servants. Various military purposes had been found for the otherwise unneeded space, except on nights like this when it was all put to the use its designers had intended.

Panissar knew people talked down about his parties, and didn’t give a damn. There was free food and liquor of the finest quality, abundant light from fairy lamps, and a small orchestra to provide motive to their dancing and background noise to cover their scheming. That, he felt, discharged his duties to the social elite. He’d been to no shortage of their parties, and found their preposterous spreads of food, illusionists, actors, exotic animal shows and even more excessive spectacles laughable. If they didn’t like his events, they didn’t have to damn well come.

“Smile,” his wife murmured, squeezing his arm.

“No,” he said sullenly, and she laughed. He relaxed a little in spite of himself. She had that effect on him.

They were making their slow rounds through the knots of people standing around talking, having just come back from the dance floor. He exchanged nods and greetings with some of those they passed, Marie giving somewhat more enthusiasm to her duties as hostess. She was an absolute treasure, and indispensable at these wretched things. Marie shared his preferences for order and simplicity, but she was of a more social inclination, organizing and managing even to enjoy the events somewhat. At the very least, she compensated for the grouchiness they brought out in him.

His Butler, manning the front doors of the great hall, announced the arrival of Lord and Lady Radour, and Panissar winced. He shot Marie a glance, having to tilt his head; she was several inches taller than he. “Do we need to…”

“Eventually,” she said calmly, patting his hand. “Let them circle a bit first, though, the Radours love being seen. Remember, you’ll need to compliment her dress when we do greet them.”

“Hnh,” he grunted, eying the new arrivals as they immediately entered a large knot of chatting nobles. “What there is of it.”

“There are elves in the room, dear,” Marie said, but didn’t try to repress her grin.

“Did we ever hear back from that pompous fool Madouri?”

“The Duke did not deign to RSVP,” she said calmly, “but he is still keeping his family on their country estate. He is very unlikely to put in an appearance.”

“Splendid. There’ll be no end of paperwork if I disembowel him in public.”

“I should think not,” Marie replied. “The receipts for the carpet-cleaning alone…”

“We’ll have to deal with that anyway, unless these well-bred lushes have learned not to spill their snacks everywhere since the last time.”

“Toman,” she warned, but smiled.

Panissar spotted someone he actually wanted to talk to, at the mercy of old Colonel Norynx, and changed course to intercept.

To his very great credit, Bishop Darling was attending to the Colonel’s recitation of his service in the Stalnar Rebellion without glazing over or nodding off. He wasn’t too self-possessed to look relieved when the General cleared his throat from just behind him. “Colonel, if you’ll forgive me, I need to borrow his Grace for a moment.”

“General, unless you’re here to march me to execution, I owe you a great debt,” Darling said as they stepped out of earshot, Norynx already having latched onto another victim. “It’s absolutely amazing how that man makes carnage and bloodshed so soporifically dull. In fact, if we’re doing the execution thing, I want you to know there are no hard feelings.”

“Are you enjoying yourself, your Grace?” Marie inquired, smiling.

“Much more now than a moment ago, thanks to you! Always a pleasure, Captain.”

“I’m retired,” she said. “It’s mostly Lady Panissar, these days.”

“Madam,” Darling said with a flourish and a bow, “nearly all of the most useless people I know answer to Lady. My belief is that a person who has earned a rank is entitled to be called by it, no matter how bewitchingly lovely she may be.”

“You don’t even realize you’re doing it, do you,” Panissar said sourly.

Marie smiled, squeezing his arm again. “Oh, he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

“Regardless,” said the General, “I’ve need of your skills, Darling.”

“Happy to help! Whose pocket shall I pick for you?”

“Please don’t,” Panissar said feelingly. “In fact, let’s try to stay out of arm’s distance of everyone for as long as possible. I need you to be my beard.”

Darling blinked, looked thoughtfully at Marie, then made a show of stroking his chin in contemplation. “Well. This just got a great deal more exciting than I anticipated.”

“I’m so glad when we get to talk outside of work,” Panissar grumbled. “I’m mostly spared your sense of humor at council meetings. Just walk with us, if you would, your Grace. I know you loathe these events as much as I do. Act like we’re discussing something important, and perhaps we can both be spared the attentions of these…people.”

“Oh? What makes you think so?” Darling asked with a smile. “I’ve always thought of myself as a people person, really.”

“You’re not so smooth that I haven’t caught you cringing at the politics we have to deal with,” said Panissar, beginning to walk again. Marie and the Bishop fell into step on either side of him. “This isn’t your scene. I suspect you’d much rather be hanging around with the city’s lowlifes.”

“You’re both right and missing the point,” Darling mused. “People are people; all of them are fascinating in their way. I do enjoy the lowlifes, though. So many in this social circle fail to appreciate them. It’s satisfying, feeling like I’m getting something others are missing out on.”

Their course had taken them to the foot of the dais opposite the entrance, on which the buffet tables perched. There came a momentary lull in their conversation while the General mulled the Bishop’s words, and at that moment, Panissar’s Butler, Spencer, announced the arrival of new guests in his booming voice.

“Princess Zaruda Carmelita Xingyu Sameera Meredith Punaji.”

Murmurs sprung up around them, conversations staggering to a halt. Panissar narrowed his eyes. “…what?”

“Not your idea, I take it?” Darling asked.

Spencer wasn’t done.

“General Trissiny Avelea, Hand of Avei.”

“What?” Panissar growled; the murmuring around them rose in pitch and volume.

“Miss Teal Falconer,” Spencer intoned. “Lady Shaeine nur Ashaele d’zin Awarrion.” He actually hesitated, the first time Panissar had ever seen the man anything less than perfectly smooth. “Fross, emissary of the Pixie Queen.”

“Oh, my,” said Darling, looking and sounding delightedly fascinated.

“Bloody hell,” Panissar growled. “Do you realize what this means?”

“You’re about to spend a fortune on booze?”

“That woman must be in the city.”

The Bishop turned to look at him, surprised. “You mean Tellwyrn? You didn’t know? Vex has people all over her.”

“Nobody tells me anything,” Panissar snarled. “Dear? Help?”

Marie spoke in a low voice as they moved slowly forward, Darling trailing along after them. “The Princess may be trouble; she’ll be mindful of the honor of her family, but Punaji ideas of proper behavior have been known to cause diplomatic incidents in the past. Avelea is a complete unknown; first the Sisters and then Tellwyrn have been hiding her. She’s a soldier, though; you should get along. The drow is of House Awarrion, and will be a mitigating factor if anything. No trouble from that source. The Falconer girl… Her whole family are artists and enchanters who disdain high society, and Teal has a reputation for being socially awkward.” She hesitated. “The pixie… I have no idea. I didn’t realize they were intelligent.”

The four uninvited guests descended the stairs to the lowered floor of the ballroom, the target of nearly every eye in the place. Five, he amended silently, counting the pixie. Well, six, if one considered that one of them was infested with a bloody demon. On his first visual inspection, he mostly found Marie’s analysis borne out. The drow looked calm and aloof as only a Narisian could. Avelea, dressed in silver armor over a sharp white dress uniform with the high-collared, gold-trimmed white ceremonial cape over that, was straight-backed and self-possessed, but visibly slightly uncomfortable. A woman after his own heart; a dance floor was no place for soldiers like them. The Punaji girl, who was hard to think of as a Princess now that he saw her, wore royal blue heavily embroidered with gold, the feathers in her hat glittering garishly with a rather tacky enchantment; between the lapels of her open coat, she was showing a bare midriff and a lot of decolletage, and probably getting a kick out of spitting in the face of Imperial fashion. Speaking of which, the Falconer girl was wearing a suit. What with that and the haircut he could have mistaken her for a boy, were it not so well-tailored. She had by no means the most impressive figure he’d ever seen on a girl, but the way her coat outlined her was eye-catching, to say the least. Great; socially awkward and apparently out to make some kind of point. Why did she have to pick his party to do it?

“Ladies,” he said, approaching. “Your Highness; General. Lady Shaeine. Miss Falconer. And… I’m sorry, miss, I don’t know the formal customs of your people.”

“We don’t really have any,” the fluttering ball of light chimed, her voice high-pitched and disgustingly cheerful. “My name’s Fross! It’s nice to meet you! Wow, your house sure is pretty!”

“Thank you,” he said, somewhat nonplussed. “Most of the credit goes to my wife. May I present Captain Marie Panissar.”

“She’s pretty too!”

“Why, thank you, Fross,” Marie said with a smile. “So are you. Ladies, welcome to our humble home. You honor us with your presence.”

“We must apologize for descending on you unannounced, Captain,” said the drow. Marie made a wry face, and Panissar grimaced, inwardly cursing Darling for putting the reminder in his head. His wife had served with honor and distinction, but usually preferred civilian address now, feeling it an appropriate counterpoint to her husband. They had a good functional partnership: he organized the Empire’s army, and she organized the rest of his life.

“Not at all, it’s I who should apologize,” Marie said smoothly. “I am terribly embarrassed that none of you were sent an invitation to our little event. I simply had no idea you were in the city.”

“Don’t feel bad, everyone was taken equally by surprise,” said Princess Zaruda, grinning. Panissar took note of that grin and resigned himself to having to clean up a mess later. That was the grin he saw on the face of young soldiers who were about eight hours away from being in lockup for drunk and disorderly conduct.

“Yes,” said Darling cheerfully, “Hurricane Arachne has a way of blowing everyone off course.”

Zaruda barked a most un-Princesslike laugh. Panissar cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to leave you out, your Grace. Ladies, this is Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal Church.”

“Pleasure,” said Avelea crisply, extending a hand and clasping the Bishop’s. “From what faith do you come to the Church, if I may ask?”

“Of course you may! I have the honor of being a priest of Eserion.”

“I see,” she said somewhat grimly.

“I’m sure you believe that you do,” Darling replied with a broad smile. “Do you play poker, General? We really should have a game sometime.”

Avelea narrowed her eyes, and Panissar sighed, making a mental note not to hang around with Darling outside of work if it could be helped. He was much better behaved in a small room with three of the Empire’s most powerful men.

Zaruda laughed again, deftly snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. “All right, keep it in your pants, your Generalship, ma’am. I have decided that I like this guy.”

“Smashing!” Darling proclaimed with a grin. “Does that mean I get to live?”

“For the time being. I’ll expect you to flirt shamelessly with me for a good chunk of the evening, of course.”

“Your Highness, I do everything shamelessly,” he said with a deep bow.

“General Panissar,” said Avelea crisply. “I wonder if I could trouble you for a word in private?”

“I would be delighted,” he said, patting Marie’s hand and then releasing her arm. He spoke in absolute sincerity. Anything to get away from this crowd for a moment.

Panissar led the way across the ballroom, up the dais and to the row of picture windows overlooking the manor gardens. There, he had to abruptly change course as the small private balcony to which he was headed proved to be occupied by two figures trying fervently to become one. Luckily, there was an identical one on the opposite side, this one empty. Panissar led Avelea across to it, ushered her through, and shut the door, cutting off the sounds of the party with more than a little relief.

“I’m afraid I’m a rather poor guest,” said Avelea, turning to face him and placing her back to the railing. “I must confess I came here tonight with the primary goal of speaking with you.”

“General,” he said with a smile, “every one of those overdressed peacocks in there is here for the singular purpose of currying favor, with me or in some cases with each other. The only exceptions are some of my officers whom I ordered to attend. Out of all those bootlickers, not one has had the basic spine to tell me to my face what they’re up to. You are now officially my favorite guest. What can I do for you?”

She smiled, and Panissar found himself liking the girl. Avelea was an enigma, little known and much speculated about, due to the secrecy in which her caretakers had shrouded her. She was young enough to be the rawest recruit his Army would allow in, but had the poise and bearing of a much more experienced soldier. Well, that made a certain amount of sense, given her upbringing.

“I am… Please don’t take offense, General Panissar,” she said, frowning slightly in thought. “I don’t mean to interfere in the running of your forces. I’d not trouble you with this matter at all if I didn’t believe it important.”

“You’re not about to bruise my ego,” he said. “Please, speak freely.”

She took a deep breath and nodded. “There is an issue in the city district commonly known as Lor’naris. It seems soldiers acting as city guards have been harassing the residents.”

Panissar frowned. “Harassing? In what way?”

“So far, it has been limited to verbal attempts at intimidation, but the matter is gradually escalating. The guards have repeatedly tried to disperse the neighborhood watch, and most recently attempted to arrest them on entirely specious grounds.”

“Attempted to arrest?”

“In fact,” she said dryly, “they attempted to arrest everyone present. Including me.”

“Now, that is fascinating,” he said grimly. “I can’t think of a single good damn reason why I haven’t been informed of such an event taking place. Ah, pardon my language.”

She nodded. “The residents have turned to me for help. I’ve sent a message to the commander of the local barracks, but… I expect little result from that, frankly. Any further action on my part would be disruptive to your chain of command, which I of course would rather avoid. That’s why I sought you out.”

“I appreciate that,” he said thoughtfully.

“Then I trust you’ll address the matter?”

“Mm,” Panissar murmured. “I will definitely look into it. I have an immediate need to know of any such things occurring among my soldiers. But before I make you any promises, General Avelea… Based on what you’ve told me so far, addressing the matter in any concrete way might not be the right move.”

She looked shocked, an expression which slowly began to morph into frustration. “I’m not sure I understand…”

“Let me apologize, now, if I seem impertinent,” he said. “I know you’ve had the best training available. Have you had much experience in actual battle?”

“I wouldn’t say much,” she admitted. “Some centaurs, a few bandits. Not substantial engagements.”

Panissar nodded. “Did you command troops in any of these conflicts?”

“Not…troops. Civilian recruits. Some…adventurers.”

He winced. “Ouch.”

“Yeah,” she said with a sigh.

“Inexperience isn’t a failing unless you refuse to remedy it,” said Panissar. “In this case, it’s my experience leading soldiers for the last several decades that makes me reluctant to take direct action. I can’t speak for the Silver Legions, obviously, but this is actually something for which officers in the Imperial Army are trained; the Empire has frequently needed to station forces among native populations who aren’t always happy with the presence of troops. There’s an art to keeping peace between soldiers and foreign civilians, and direct confrontation isn’t any part of it.”

“Direct confrontation is absolutely the last thing anyone wants,” she said earnestly. “That’s exactly why I’d hoped you would call down the offending regiment. This pattern of behavior goes well beyond just a few individuals.”

“There are more kinds of confrontation than soldiers clashing with rebels,” he said. “Tolerance is a lot like morale; you can’t just order your soldiers to have it. It must be carefully fostered. The important thing to understand about the bigoted mind, General Avelea, is what it fears.”

Her eyebrows rose sharply. “Fears?”

He nodded. “Lor’naris isn’t just drow, you know. Oh, there are a few drow adventurers who came to Tiraas looking for who-knows-what, I’m not contesting that. The vast majority of the drow in that district, however, moved there because they chose human mates and their own families weren’t having any of it back in Tar’naris. And of those pairings, a lot are my former soldiers who were stationed at Fort Vaspian and the Imperial embassy in Tar’naris itself. That is what the bigoted mind fears: normal people living out the contradiction of its ideas. Proof that it is wrong. Bad enough that the drow and humans of Lor’naris are all cuddly with each other; they’ve gone and become successful, which must be absolutely infuriating. This kind of thing is why the most ardent racists get more worked up over halfbloods than they do about actual elves or dwarves or whatever their problem is.”

“This is quite interesting,” she said patiently, “but I’m not sure how it pertains to the matter of enforcement.”

“Just that coming down on the troops who are causing this ruckus won’t solve the problem,” he said. “Oh, if this were wartime, if the overall situation were worse in any of a number of possible ways, that’s exactly what I’d do. But it’s not. This is about the culture of my Army and the welfare of this city, and that means…” He sighed. “…that it doesn’t get to be simple. Ordering those soldiers to lighten up, even disciplining them, will make them dig their heels in. Consider the positives of the situation. A lot of those residents are fellow soldiers, or were. A lot of those serving in that barracks are likely just toeing the line; the cohesiveness of the unit is a powerful force, and many of them may not have any animosity toward the residents. Shutting them down would alleviate the current tension at the cost of entrenching those attitudes, making them much harder to root out in the future.”

“What do you intend to do, then?” she asked. Avelea was holding to her self-control, but he could plainly see the frustration on her face. Were she any junior officer of his, Panissar would have laid a hand on her shoulder, but Legionnaires could be prickly about men touching them without permission. He contented himself with folding his hands behind his back.

“Don’t think I’m going to ignore this, General,” he said firmly. “I greatly appreciate you bringing it to my attention. I had no idea any of this was going on, and it’s always preferable to act from a position of knowledge. First, though, I need to gather more information, and if and when action is necessary, it will be of the careful variety, and possibly not undertaken from within the Army itself. This is a good job for diplomats, religious leaders and civic organizers. The folk in Lor’naris have a solid reputation for being able to handle their own affairs, too. It should never be an excuse for apathy,” he added more gently, “but sometimes, the best thing you can do actually is nothing. Provided you do that nothing in a careful, controlled manner and stand ready to take action if it becomes needful.”

“I see,” she said stiffly, and Panissar barely managed not to sigh. Yes, she might be disciplined and mature for her age, but… Teenagers always thought they could save the world. A teenager who was the personal Hand of a goddess was doubtless ten times as bad.

Avelea turned to stare thoughtfully out over the garden, and one good look at her expression told Panissar he hadn’t heard the last of this.

It almost made him eager to get back to the party.

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1 – 12

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Images in crystal balls were always somewhat distorted by the shape of the thing; it was like looking through a soap bubble. The larger and clearer the crystal, though, the sharper and more comprehensible the image. That was why the four men met in the Emperor’s own conference chamber rather than the little out-of-the-way nook in one of the Palace’s sub-basements, as they were accustomed. It was hardly less secure, and had the advantage of the proper equipment to display what the Hand of the Emperor felt they should see personally, without the awkwardness of making several of the Empire’s more important personages crane their necks and squint.

On a brass stand in the center of the hulking conference table sat a pumpkin-sized globe of utterly flawless white quartz, a gift from the queen of Tar’naris. Viewed from any angle, its central body was all but perfectly transparent, but with a white haze around the edges—at least, when it was not in use. Now, the peripheral discoloration remained, but the scene within was of another time and place. Modern “crystal” balls of formed glass avoided this property, but they held enchantments less well and showed paler, washed-out images with greater distortions due to the shape of the ball. On balance, the quartz made for sharper viewing. It had been a kingly gift indeed.

The four watched the recording in silence; the image in the crystal orb was the same no matter the angle from which it was viewed. There was no sound, but before sending the recording to them the scryers had added floating words to the bottom of the image conveying dialogue. A ripple briefly distorted the scene when Elilial casually destroyed one of the scrying orbs atop the watchpost, but the image cleared immediately. There was nothing much to see by that point, though, save the goddess walking away, but every man present observed that intently. Queen of demons or no, she was well worth looking at.

Once she vanished, however, so did the recording, and the four men leaned back in their chairs in unison. The black-coated Hand turned the crank beneath the table, and with a clacking of gears, the crystal orb descended back into its resting place inside the heavy piece of furniture, the hidden panel sliding over it once it was down. It wouldn’t do for it be be chipped or scratched, no matter how unlikely that was. Plus, they could now see each other clearly without having to crane their heads around it.

“The men?” asked Quentin Vex, who headed Imperial Intelligence. As usual he looked disinterested and half-asleep, which they all knew to be an act; one did not get ahead in his field by being dull-witted, but one often could by pretending to be.

“They’re fine,” said the man across from him, a slender and diminutive figure in a plain Imperial Army uniform without any medals. General Toman Panissar disdained the fripperies and indulgences that his position entitled him to; it was one of the things that endeared him to his men. “Woke up within the hour, none the worse for wear. Not even much confused, though getting coherent reports out of them was a chore. All three have an amazing literary gift for botching even a simple incident report. This is the first time I’ve had a clear picture of what actually happened that day.”

“Well, you’ve seen it now,” said the Hand, who sat at the head of the table in the Emperor’s place. For almost anyone else that would be a misdemeanor at least, but Hands of the Emperor were his voice and spoke with his authority. Outside their own ranks, nothing was known of the process by which they were selected and trained, nor what powers they wielded or even how many there were, but their absolute and devoted loyalty was a cornerstone of Imperial rule. According to rumor, these men had no names and no desires or even identity apart from their service to the Emperor. This Hand was a balding man with craggy features, his remaining hair a dark brown that matched his deep-set eyes. “The view from the ground, so to speak, is significant, but Lord Quentin has more for us, I believe.”

“Quite, and I’ll forestall the obvious question that I know is at the front of everyone’s minds,” the spymaster said, slouching languidly in his chair. “It’s her, beyond doubt. The visual identification is a complete match with Elilial’s other recorded incarnations on this plane. That can be faked, yes, if someone had the skill and the haycart necessary to carry his balls around, but we’ve no shortage of corroborating evidence.” He nodded to the Hand. “She was in the Palace itself immediately prior to this incident, having planted herself among the staff—”

“Omnu’s breath,” Panissar cursed, then shot a guilty look at the fourth man at the table. “Ah, my apologies, Bishop.”

Vex went on with an amused twitch of his lips. “…and we had our scryers point everything in their arsenal at the site the instant she set off the wards—which she did in a dramatic way. The hellgate was unmistakeably opened from the outside, then closed from within, which I’m sure you know is extremely unusual. And it was done by divine energy. We can know for an absolute fact that this was the act of a god. As an incidental aside, our scans picked up traces of another scrying spell on the site, which we tracked to the vicinity of Last Rock.”

“That woman,” Panissar growled.

“That about sums it up, yes,” Vex said wryly, then turned to regard the Bishop. “We sent a briefing and a request to the Church immediately…”

“Indeed, yes,” said Bishop Darling, putting on a polite smile. “His Holiness was appraised beforehand of events unfolding within the Palace, having himself foreseen Elilial’s involvement and warned the Emperor. He communed personally with the Pantheon immediately upon receiving your request. The Archpope personally verifies that none of the deities with whom we have any contact entered Hell at that location. Several were keenly interested to learn that Elilial apparently had.”

“They don’t know things like that anyway?” Panissar asked drily.

The Bishop shrugged. He was a new addition to their group, the previous Church liason having retired quite recently, and this was his first attendance at their regular meetings. He was also, by at least a decade, the youngest man present. “What the gods do and do not know is a matter best not speculated on. Of course,” he admitted with a grin, “we do anyway. They are known to be able to hide their movements from each other, and Elilial, perhaps by necessity, is exceptionally good at that. To the point that I don’t believe we would have been allowed to see this move on her part if she did not wish us to.”

“I agree,” said Vex.

“And that is where the matter stands, gentlemen,” the Hand said, drumming his fingers on the table. “The Mother of Demons is on the move, and has an interest in the Empire itself, specifically. Tiraan forces have fended off several of her campaigns at various times in the last thousand years, but this marks her first direct move against our government that we know of.”

A sober silence fell as they digested this, broken by the General. “What, exactly, was the nature of her interest in the Palace?”

“That’s classified,” said the Hand stiffly.

“Seriously?” Panissar leaned forward, glaring. “Classified to us?”

“Sealed to the Throne,” replied the Hand. “I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, General, that this is not a thing lightly done. The mere knowledge of what she was up to would rock the Empire if it spread. Therefore, preventing its spread is our highest priority. Rest assured that his Majesty and the Empress are tending to it with the full support of the Hands.”

“What are we allowed to know, then?” Panissar shot back with heavy sarcasm. “Bureaucrats sending soldiers into battle with faulty intel is a recipe for dead soldiers and not much else.”

“At this point, our priority should be preventing this from becoming a matter for soldiers,” said Vex. “We can’t match a deity for brute force. Our best chance is to play her game. No matter how powerful or how beyond us the gods are, an individual god isn’t more intelligent or devious than a human is capable of being. Or am I wrong?”

“You aren’t,” said Darling, “though I may be forced, later, to deny admitting that.”

“And so the game is on,” the Hand said grimly. “I’d like to begin by sketching a profile of our enemy, if Bishop Darling will oblige us. You are the resident expert on the gods.”

“I don’t see this leading to anything but a sermon,” said the General.

“Well, the high points such a sermon would hit are relevant.” Darling folded his hands on the tabletop, gazing earnestly at them. “Mother of Demons, betrayed mankind, cast into Hell, obsessed with revenge against the Pantheon, et cetera. All this is pertinent to her motivations, but I’m going to assume you’ve all managed to attend enough Sunday services to have heard it before. Unless someone wants to correct me? Good. I have, in fact, made something of a study of the records of Elilial’s various gambits over the millennia, and I am struck by an observation that I’m afraid the Church tends to bury in its zeal to warn against her. Elilial is, by any reasonable definition, a trickster god.”

“How do you mean?” asked the Hand, frowning. “That she’s sly? We knew that.”

“I would say it is more that she’s gleefully sly.”

“That makes a difference?”

“It does indeed,” said Vex, looking somewhat more alert.

“It means,” Darling went on, “that she fits a pattern of behavior which better suits, say, Eserion or Vesk, than the leader of rampaging demonic hordes that the sermons tend to portray. In account after account, she has favored subtlety over brute force, and never been gratuitously cruel except on the rare occasions when she had a god of the Pantheon at a disadvantage. She really hates them. When it comes to dealing with humans and other mortals… I would say that she seems to appreciate a worthy opponent. From her recorded comments alone, it’s apparent she has quite a sense of humor.”

“Humor,” Panissar said flatly.

The Bishop nodded. “We think of evil in a certain way…a rather theatrical one. But ‘evil,’ gentlemen, describes a class of actions, not a state of being. I am imposing my perspective somewhat, here; as I said, I have made something of a personal study of Elilial’s movements. It’s a hobby, you might say. But my impression from this is that she tends to be less aggressive and more…playful.”

“How certain are you of that analysis?” asked the Hand after a moment in which the other silently digested this.

“Very. If you would like, I can bring you a selection of materials to read. None are actually classified by the Church, but most of the accounts are not widely published…”

“That’s all right,” the Hand said quickly, “I have enough reports to slog through. You’re the expert; we’ll take your word. That’s why you’re here, after all.”

“Of course.”

“That being the case, it’s a significant observation,” said Vex. “A campaign against a con artist will play right into her hands if you try to approach her as a general, but if you know what she is and how she works…”

“Then the game becomes less one-sided,” said Panissar, nodding. “Know your enemy. Unfortunately, if we are not allowed to know what she is up to, her personality profile is of little use.” He pressed his lips into a thin line, staring at the Hand.

“This much I can tell you,” the Hand replied, “her actions suggest an attempt to place a puppet on the throne of the Empire itself. The Bishop’s observations fit with her methods, in fact,” he added, frowning in thought. “She killed four Hands, but only when they attacked her. She was left with a golden opportunity to assassinate the Emperor himself, but offered him no harm.”

Vex suddenly sat bolt upright in his chair. “The recording. She said ‘you wouldn’t shoot a pregnant lady.’”

“Omnu’s balls,” Panissar hissed, realization thundering down on him.

The Hand shot to his feet, slamming both palms on the tabletop and leaning forward to glare at them. “This matter is sealed to the Throne. You will not repeat anything you have heard outside this room, even to each other, nor speculate further on the matter! Is that utterly clear?”

He did not relax even slightly until receiving a verbal acknowledgment from each of them.

“You were right, though,” Darling noted. “That information would rock the Empire. And I think we’ve seen the evidence of her willingness to use it. Dropping that hint just where it would get back to the people analyzing it…”

“I think,” Vex said slowly, “you had better begin laying contingency plans for the rumor, at least, to get around.”

“I believe that is your job, Lord Quentin?” the Hand shot back, still visibly irate.

“Indeed, sir, and now that I have an idea what is going on I may be able to actually do it.” He sighed, slouching back down in his seat. “There’s a method to countering rumor, if you get out in front of it. Of course, one runs the risk of spreading the very tale we want to suppress, if she doesn’t, in fact, attempt to spread it herself.”

“And so it begins,” Darling said. “We second-guess ourselves and each other while she is out there, freely acting. This is exactly how trickster figures operate.”

“What would you suggest we do about it, then?” demanded the Hand.

“Individually, I’d have to say we would be overmatched. As a group, however, I advise you each to simply be careful not to become bogged down in introspection. Trust your instincts, communicate clearly with the rest of us, and between our various skills I believe we have a good chance of countering her.”

“So, you suggest we fulfill the letter of the reason for this group’s existence,” the Hand said flatly. “Thank you very much, Bishop.”

“Don’t take it to heart,” said Vex with a grin. “He likes to have the last word.”

“Let’s keep this on track,” said the Hand, still quite stiffly.

“Indeed, he reminds me of a smart-mouthed fellow I used to know in my younger days. Always had to make sure he was the head of the group, that one.”

“But you forgave his trespasses and became the bigger person, as the gods would have it of us,” said Panissar, rolling his eyes. “Yes, yes, we know.”

“Actually,” Darling mused reminiscently, “eventually I kicked the crap out of him and slept with his girlfriend. And then his sister.”

A dead silence fell, the three of them staring at him. The Bishop spread his arms in a gesture of benediction, smiling beatifically. “No one is born a priest, gentlemen.”

“Anyway,” the Hand said loudly, “all other things being equal, we are in the unenviable place of needing to await our opponent’s next move before we understand enough of her plans to counter them. The purpose of this meeting is to ensure that each of the bodies represented by this group is aware of the situation, in communication with one another, and able to meet the threat as it rises.”

“That’s it, then?” Panissar grunted. “We wait?”

“We’ve little choice, General, unless you propose to invade Hell.”

“I have, in fact, drawn up projections of that very campaign.”

“Oh?” The Hand lifted an eyebrow. “And what did you conclude?”

“I can’t imagine I would need to spell it out for you. Insufficient data to properly plan an attack, and even the Tiraan Empire hasn’t the resources to wage war on an entire plane of existence.”

“Then yes, we wait. In the meantime, there are two related matters that need to be addressed, pertaining to the security of this matter. First is the ping from Last Rock.”

“We should just send someone round to put that damned elf out of our misery,” Panissar said sourly. “You could see to that, couldn’t you, Quentin?”

“It’s been attempted,” Vex replied with a dry smile, “by the best. The last time it was attempted by the Empire itself, Tellwyrn sent the family signet ring of the then head of Intelligence to Princess Sharina as a wedding gift. His hand was still in it.”

“There is a policy in place to deal with Tellwyrn and those like her,” said the Hand, “and it revolves around not antagonizing them without good and specific cause. The effort it would take to purge the Empire of such troublesome individuals would leave our civilization in ruins. For the time being, we are simply concerned with keeping her out of this matter.”

“Need we, though?” asked Darling. “It seems to me she could be a useful ally in this.”

“The Tiraan Empire does not make alliances with individual citizens living in its borders!”

“You know what I meant. Tellwyrn’s name crops up repeatedly in my readings of the histories of the gods. I rather think she knows many of them more intimately than their own priests. I’m sure all three of you are aware that she’s almost certainly killed one herself. For all her apparent love of causing trouble for its own sake, she is a heroic figure in legend as often as a villainous one. And she’s very likely been investigating this matter longer than we have.”

“What?” The Hand leaned forward, frowning. “How?”

“There is the matter of the exploding girls. You’re aware of it?”

“I wasn’t,” said Panissar, though Vex and the Hand both nodded. “Exploding girls?”

“Roughly four years ago, there were five confirmed cases of spontaneous human combustion,” Darling explained. “All teenage girls. In each case, it was discerned after the fact that the victim had been attacked by a demon of extraordinary power, which attempted to possess her, resulting in the destruction of both demon and girl in all cases except one. The one successful possession was of Teal Falconer, who is, I believe, currently enrolled at the University in Last Rock.”

“Blazing hell,” Panissar whispered.

“Indeed,” said Darling, nodding. “The Falconer girl has control, and the demon Vadrieny appears to be amnesiac as a result of the trauma of possession, and evinces no desires except to exist. After a thorough examination by the Church, they were issued a Talisman of Absolution. I can’t imagine Tellwyrn is ignorant of the other events surrounding this student’s condition, nor that she’s let them go.”

“She hasn’t,” Vex said. “She’s been sniffing around the attack sites for the last year, despite our attempts to keep the business hushed up. You’re assuming this is part of Elilial’s current activity?”

“I’m not discounting Elilial’s capacity to have multiple irons in the fire,” the Bishop replied, “but on the scale on which gods move, four years is nothing. I think it’s a safe assumption that the matters are, at least, related. So not only is Tellwyrn already involved, and a person of useful capabilities who could help, but I think there’s a good chance she’s a leading expert on the matter.”

“Bringing her in is absolutely out of the question,” said Vex. “That, too, has been tried. It was…ugly.”

“How ugly?” asked Panissar.

“Ever heard of the Ministry of Mysteries?”

“No.”

“That’s right, you haven’t. Neither has anyone else, since they tried to hire Arachne Tellwyrn.”

“I agree,” said the Hand. “Directly involving an individual with a legendary capacity to destroy everything she touches is not on the table.”

“However, it’s not impossible that we can make use of her, provided we maintain a very circumspect distance,” Vex mused, “especially if she’s already involving herself. Pointing Tellwyrn at Elilial would be a handy way to keep them both busy.”

“I’ll present the idea to his Majesty,” the Hand said briskly. “The only remaining matter is our three witnesses, who I believe are currently being detained. Obviously, the most logical solution is that they be silenced—”

“No,” Panissar said flatly.

The Had scowled. “Imperial security is a matter well worth the lives of three extremely underperforming soldiers…”

“The Empire is people,” the General snapped, “not some vast mechanism. The day this government begins to exist for its own sake instead the benefit of its people is the day it needs to fall.”

“General,” said the Hand quietly, “you’ve picked a strange audience to give voice to borderline treason.”

“Go tell the Emperor what I said; it’s nothing I’ve not said to his face. I’m fairly confident, in fact, that he agrees with me. Those three boys may not be the best soldiers by any stretch of the imagination, but I want you to remember something: faced with the most evil force in existence, their response was to draw their weapons and invoke their Emperor’s name. They will not be thrown away like inconvenient puppies. I will fight you with every resource I can muster if you try.” He leaned forward, staring intently at the Hand. “I advise you not to force me to exhaust the resources I can legally use.”

“Getting soldiers for those posts is tricky,” Vex explained to Darling in the icy silence which followed. “Hellgate guard and such. We like to use men who’ve tested well above average on loyalty and devotion to the Empire, but in the bottom rungs of every trait that makes them useful as soldiers. Loyal enough to be trusted, in short, but expendable in case whatever they’re guarding acts up. It’s not a common combination of traits, and well…it leads to complications like this when it comes time to actually expend them. This is why you don’t name the goats you raise for meat.”

“I…see,” Darling said slowly. Panissar and the Hand were still glaring daggers at each other. “I might be overstepping my bounds, here, but I believe I have an idea.”

“Go ahead,” said the Hand wearily, leaning back in his seat.

“Well, it sounds to me like we have two problems,” he said. “There’s the matter of handling Professor Tellwyrn, who is probably inextricably involved in this already, without letting her botch our own efforts completely or attempting to force her out of it, which we’re assuming would backfire.”

“Backfire horrifically, yes,” sad Vex with a faint smile.

“And then,” Darling went on, “we have three soldiers who frankly deserve medals, but who for security reasons need to be stuck somewhere that they cannot go blabbing and blow the lid off the whole thing.”

“Yes,” said Panissar. “And?”

The Bishop smiled. “Sometimes, gentlemen, if the gods smile on us, two problems are the solutions to each other.”

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