Tag Archives: Glory

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The King of the Punaji strode onto the tower platform to find it already abuzz with activity, as were the other towers of the Rock itself, and to judge by the distant lights, every defensive emplacement across the harbor. It might be their alliance with Tiraas that secured Puna Dara from retribution by other naval powers, but the Punaji were not foolish enough to blithely rely upon it. The deep hum of a fully-charged mag cannon occupying the center of the tower platform attested to that.

“Papa!” Ruda said with clear relief. “The signals are in from the other towers; all cannons are ready to fire on command. That thing is a much more mobile target than a ship, but it’s cruising around in predictable circles out there. I’ve given orders for every artillery team to focus on one spot in its established course, but we’re inevitably going to have some missed shots once it starts reacting. That’s as much as I wanted to order without you here.”

“Well done, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled, joining her at the battlements and placing a heavy hand on her shoulder. Together, they stared out into the night, and the augmented sea serpent dominating the harbor. As she had said, it was in some kind of odd little patrol route, swimming around and around in a tight circle right in the center of the bay, as if going out of its way to avoid impacting the docks or ships. It was wasting a lot of energy, too; sea serpents were not designed to move with their upper bodies extending out of the water. This thing was deliberately making a show of itself, which implied direction by a much greater intelligence than an animal should have. “To judge by the gadgetry plating that aberration, I surmise your friends have failed to negotiate.”

“I trust my friends,” Ruda said, glaring at the circling monster. “It was worth trying. Sometimes, some people just can’t be reasoned with.”

“It’s good that you understand that, little minnow. Prepare to fire!” he added in a booming voice of command. “Signal the other towers to fire at will upon this weapon’s discharge!”

“Aye, sir!” barked the nearby artillery specialist, hunkering over her mag cannon’s runic controls and staring down its huge barrel, while another soldier swiftly ran signal flags up and a third flashed the beam of a fairy lamp to illuminate them.

“As soon as we fire, it’s war, Papa,” Ruda said grimly. “It’ll be war in our streets.”

“That is not a threat, Zari,” Blackbeard rumbled. “Even if only meant as one, the harbor is unsafe while it’s out there. We are the sea. Without our navy, without merchant ships, Puna Dara is crippled. This is war. I have not rushed to confrontation, but once we are attacked, I will not hesitate.”

“Yes, sir.”

The King’s chest swelled, and he roared, “FIRE AT WILL!”

The cannoneer had been tracking the beast, her weapon’s levitation charms straining to adjust it upon its hinged and spring-loaded mounts; mag cannons were easier and quicker to aim than older conventional artillery, but that was not saying much. At Rajakhan’s command, she immediately yanked the ignition lever.

Everyone’s hair stood up and the tower was illuminated by a white glow as the mag cannon discharged a tremendous beam of pure energy, momentarily cutting off all conversation with its deafening, metallic roar, oddly reminiscent of the semi-mechanical serpent’s. It was a glancing hit; the beam raked one side of the monster’s upthrust body, sending it careening away, then gouged a path of steam and spray through the ocean as the cannoneer tried to adjust, following the beast’s movement. The beam persisted for less than ten seconds, though, and the heavy weapon was awkward to move; she did not get it back onto its target before the energy expired.

Per the King’s orders, however, more fire immediately followed, from each of the mag cannon emplacements on the Rock and the harbor walls. Massive streams of pure arcane energy lit the night, blazing from the arc of Puna Dara’s docks and filling the center of the harbor with an inescapable field of destruction. Not every shot connected; not every shot that hit was a direct blow. Two beams struck the serpent dead on, however, and three others managed glancing strikes off various portions of its long body as it flailed under the assault.

A mag cannon could bore a hole through a fortress wall or obliterate a warship with a single shot. A famously lucky hit by an Imperial mag artillery team had once cleaved a dragon right out of the sky. They failed, however, to sink the beast.

Even as its hide was ignited with a furious torrent of energy and lightning arced from its beleaguered body across the surface of the water, the serpent did not go down. Its metal plating flared alight, the spiny ridges along its back blazing with the intensity of the sun, and apparently diffusing even the colossal energy of the mag cannon fire and dispersing it back into the ocean itself. Waves surged outward toward the docks, whipped up both by the artillery and the sea serpent’s thrashing.

The cannons fell silent, having all fired within seconds of each other; it would take roughly a minute of recharging before they were ready to discharge again at full power.

Still glowing and sparking with residual energy, the sea serpent reared up again, opened its tremendous jaws and let out another deafening roar which boomed out across the harbor.

Princess Zaruda gripped the battlements, sticking her head out toward the sea, and roared right back. Soldiers on the tower followed suit, brandishing staves and swords, and the wordless call was taken up and spread rapidly across the walls of the whole fortress. Faced with an apparently indestructible, unstoppable foe, the Punaji screamed defiance into the dark.

King Rajakhan, however, stood still and silent, one hand resting upon the battlements, watching for whatever fate brought next.


“I won’t hold that against him,” Ayuvesh said magnanimously to the group staring in horror at his massive screen. “Perfectly reasonable reaction to my little pet’s sudden appearance in the harbor. In fact, it makes a very useful object lesson!” He turned a beaming smile upon them, his overt jolliness not quite hiding the venom lurking at the edges of the expression. “Much better in the long run that Rajakhan understands there is nothing he can do against the serpent. This way, hopefully, I will not have to make any demonstrations upon anything which bleeds.”

“You piece of shit,” Gabriel growled, striding to the edge of the platform and leveling his scythe.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Seemingly unperturbed at having a divine weapon pointed at him, Ayuvesh shook a chiding finger. “Careful where you swing that thing, Hand of Death. Yes, yes, we all know you can reap the life from everyone here. Just be advised that if you do, Puna Dara will soon follow. My will alone keeps the beast in check, now that it is awake.” Abruptly, his jovial expression collapsed into a flat stare. “It will not attack…for now. I will give you a few hours to return to the Rock and explain the situation to the King; my pet can withstand the venting of his outrage until then. Beyond that point, however, I expect the Infinite Order to be shown some consideration in Puna Dara.” Slowly, he leaned back in his chair, turning the walking machine again to face them directly. “Once these extremely reasonable and basic conditions are satisfied, perhaps we can resume our discussion. But I see no reason to negotiate until my people’s safety is assured. Especially not with interlopers who talk with one face and scheme with another. And now…” He raised one hand to make a languid gesture at them—or rather, at the doorway behind them. “Until then, children, it would seem you have a rather urgent errand to run. I trust you remember the way out?”


“Your Grace…es.” Inspector Jaahri paused, cleared his throat, and then adjusted his lapels, the living portrait of a man knocked off balance. “I assure you, this situation is under control. If you will allow me to do—”

“Well, drat,” Bishop Darling said, turning to Syrinx, “now he’s gone all diplomatic. That looked rather promising for a moment, there.”

“I never get to have any fun,” she replied petulantly. “Well, if the boy is through making threats, I suppose this’ll go more quickly.”

“Now, see here,” the Inspector said loudly.

“Hush. You’re done.” Basra flicked her fingers at him in a contemptuous gesture, turning a cold shoulder to Jaahri and addressing the rest of the group. “Fortunately, I did not just traipse off into the sunset after interrupting my old friend Falaridjad trying to illegally arrest you kids. I can only surmise from this debacle that you’ve been trying to unravel this affair yourselves in spite of repeated advice to keep safely out of it. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know someone competent has been addressing the matter while you scurried around wasting time.”

“All that’s a little strong,” Darius complained.

“Meet Bishop Syrinx,” Jasmine muttered. Schwartz clenched his fists, breathing slowly and evenly and making a concerted effort not to look at either Basra or Jenell. Meesie, meanwhile, had puffed herself up like a pincushion and was emitting a high, constant hiss.

“All right, this is enough,” Jaahri barked, trying to reassert control. He took a menacing step toward Syrinx. “I will have to insist—”

Jenell’s sword hissed as she yanked it from its sheath and strode forward, pointing the blade at his heart and interposing herself between him and Syrinx.

Jaahri halted, staring at her in clear disbelief. “Young woman,” he said finally, “I am an Imperial Inspector.” For good measure, he pointed at the silver gryphon badge pinned to his coat. “Assaulting me constitutes treason.”

“Congratulations,” she replied, deadpan. “Step away from the Bishop while you’ve still got legs, fool. You just started to charge one of the Sisterhood’s top blademasters. If I meant you harm, I’d have let you do it.”

“Thank you, Covrin,” Basra said lightly. “In any case, I have been investigating this conspiracy with every resource available to me.”

“And that includes me!” Darling said in a cheerful tone, raising a hand. “Hello, everyone, my name is Antonio Darling and I serve as the Church’s liaison to the Imperial security council. My own contacts, working on information helpfully gathered by Bishop Syrinx, singled out branches of this mess among the military police. Including one Inspector Jaahri—who, as we just learned even while gathering intel, was himself on the way to the home of a prominent Eserite to investigate the mysterious demise of one of the best leads in this case.”

“That is slander,” Jaahri hissed.

“Actually he’s got the documents to prove it,” Flora piped up.

“So, being written down, it’s technically libel,” Fauna added.

“Except, proof is absolute defense against a charge of slander,” Flora corrected her.

“Oh, that’s right. So it’s just… What was the word he used?”

Jenell had not lowered her weapon, and now smiled at Jaahri across it. “Treason.”

“Antonio, so help me,” Basra complained, “if your little vaudevillians start including my aide in that insufferable act of theirs I shall be very cross with you.”

“Heel, girls,” he said dutifully. Both elves stuck out their tongues at his back. “Anyhow, we came down here in something of a hurry; we only just learned of this development.”

“But not too much of a hurry to take precautions,” Syrinx added with a predatory smile. “I have a squad from the Third Legion on the way here.”

“And,” Darling said complacently, “I took the time to start several balls rolling before leaving Imperial Command. For your edification, Inspector, General Panissar and Lord Vex are on that council with me, so if you were entertaining thoughts of going over my head, I hope your arms are a lot longer than they look. If you act very quickly and are very adroit, perhaps by this time tomorrow you won’t be in a cell. Who knows? If you’re a lot more capable than I think you are, you might even still be employed by his Majesty’s government.”

Jaahri stared at him, breathing loudly through his nose. The other soldiers in the room watched both him and their sergeant uncertainly.

“Or,” Basra said into the ensuing quiet, “you can attempt what you are contemplating right now. With no surviving witnesses, things might still go in your favor. Then again, you are in a room with two powerful divine casters, one a blademaster, two elves, a Butler, a Silver Legionnaire and…” She glanced at Schwartz with a faint smirk. “…a witch who, despite his numerous failings, is probably capable of demolishing your squad single-handedly. Think carefully, Inspector. Take your time. Some of us can spare it.”

“There seems to be no probable cause to seek arrest here,” the sergeant said suddenly. “Men, you are to ignore any such orders. If the Inspector sees fit to file a complaint, let it be on my head.”

“Yes, sir!” several of them chorused in clear relief.

Jaahri’s left eye twitched violently. He drew in an exceptionally deep breath and let it out through his teeth.

“This is not over,” he promised the two Bishops, and swept toward the door. His dramatic exit was ruined by the fact that Flora and Fauna were still standing in it, and made no move to clear the way.

“You may want to curtail that melodramatic streak before being interviewed by Intelligence,” Darling suggested. “In my experience, the innocent don’t issue threats. Girls, let the man out.”

Jaahri made a point of brushing aggressively against Flora as he departed. She exaggeratedly pantomimed fainting against the door frame, causing Fauna to snicker.

“Weren’t you just making threats, Sweet?” Tallie asked.

Bishop Darling turned to her and winked.

The sergeant cleared his throat. “Well! I guess our business here is done. Unless your Graces will be needing us for anything else?”

“Report to Imperial Command, if you would, Sergeant,” Darling said politely. “That is a request; I’m not empowered to give you orders. But Intelligence will be wanting your testimony on this anyway, and the faster you tell your side, the less opportunity that one has to throw you lads under the carriage.”

“Thank you, your Grace, I’ll do that.” He tipped his cap politely, then again to Glory. “A good evening to you, your Graces. Apologies for the inconvenience, Ms. Sharvineh. Fall in, men.”

There was a slightly awkward silence while the soldiers filed out, Smythe following them into the hall. The moment they heard the front door click shut, Tallie let out a whoop. “Now that is what—”

“Shut up.” Darling’s voice was not loud, but flat and forceful; it commanded instant silence. “You little idiots have come within a hair’s breadth of getting yourselves killed. You actually did get Carruthers Treadwell killed, so, thanks for that.”

“I was the one who invited him here, Sweet,” Glory said calmly. “The security of this house has never failed before. I still don’t know how someone was able to commit an act of such violence without alerting my wards.”

“I’ll wager you’ve never made yourself an enemy of renegade Salyrites, Sharvineh,” said Basra. “You were probably better off trusting Schwartz than your own passive defenses in that regard.” She gave him a suspiciously bright smile. “So long as you can deal with his tendency to develop inappropriate and obsessive crushes, he’s a very useful boy to have around.”

Schwartz grabbed Meesie, who tried to lunge at Basra from across the room, squealing ferociously. “Always a pleasure, your Grace,” he said tersely. “Glory, unless you need me for something else, I’ll just be in the kitchen. I imagine it will mess up your nice parlor if I set that woman on fire, which is where this is heading.”

“Maybe absenting yourself is a good idea, Herschel,” Glory replied softly. Ami, meanwhile, let out a theatrical groan and rolled her eyes dramatically.

“And Talaari,” Basra added. “This is downright nostalgic! Almost the whole gang, together again.”

“I am here to further my career,”Ami said haughtily, “this being a most prestigious house in which to perform. It was going rather well until the unfortunate homicide. No offense meant to anyone, but I would be delighted if the ‘gang’ remained separate. Every time I see any of you people, I end up with some maniac trying to kill me.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding,” Darling mused while Schwartz slipped out the back, still clutching a struggling Meesie in both hands. “She really talks that way.”

“Ami’s another one who’s very good at what she does,” Basra said dourly, “and so annoying it’s almost not worth it. I seem to attract them, somehow. Anyway! We both have to go resume cleaning up this mess, so we can’t loiter here much longer. Ms. Sharvineh, assorted junior reprobates, I’ve given orders for the Legionnaires coming to escort you to the Temple of Avei.”

“Now, just a ding-danged second here,” Tallie began stridently.

“If,” Basra all but shouted, “you choose to go! I strongly encourage you to do so—renegade Salyrites may be willing to take on a famous socialite’s personal defenses, but the Sisterhood of Avei is another matter. If you prefer to take your chances alone, though, they will stay here to secure the house until further notice.”

“My neighbors will love that,” Glory murmured.

“The problem,” said Jasmine, “is that we know for a fact this conspiracy has a presence in the Sisterhood of Avei. The Guild is the only cult we believe isn’t infiltrated.”

“And that’s why you don’t let anybody corner you alone,” Basra said in a tone of exaggerated patience. “Stay in the Temple’s main areas—or better yet, in the Silver Legion’s public grounds. I’m sure you know your way around, Jasmine.”

“And for the record,” Darling added, “just in case it comes up, the Huntsmen of Shaath are also clean.”

“Hard to imagine that becoming helpful,” said Darius.

“Yeah,” Darling said sharply. “All of which makes it very curious that you left the Guild in the first place.”

“The thing about that,” Tallie began.

“We fucked up,” Ross interrupted. He shrugged when everyone turned to stare at him. “That’s the truth. We saw cults infiltrated an’ panicked. Didn’t think about the Guild bein’ harder to corrupt.”

“Well, at least they can learn,” Basra said, shaking her head. “The good news is that all of this may be coming to a head very soon. We’ll take steps to get you lot safely back to the Guild if it’s not cleaned up by tomorrow. What I assume you don’t know is that today, Archpope Justinian gave an address in which he warned in the strongest possible terms against clerics of any faith prioritizing Church loyalty over obligations to their own gods.”

“Wait…what?” Tallie said incredulously. “I thought this whole thing was about Justinian’s inner circle making some kind of power play!”

Darling and Syrinx exchanged a look.

“Kid,” he said, “we’re his inner circle. And one thing we know Justinian likes to do is use his loyal agents to winnow each other down.”

Layla suddenly straightened up, her eyes widening. “He’s cleaning house.”

“Well, good,” Basra said, “at least one of them has a mind.”

“Well, it ain’t me,” said Darius. “What do you mean, cleaning house?”

“The general tensions between the Church and the Imperial government were brought to the very brink of open violence just a few weeks ago,” Darling said somberly. “The details are classified, but suffice it to say, each runs secret projects, and two of theirs blundered into each other in the dark and it got messy. Sharidan knows the Archpope has designs on increasing his power at the Throne’s expense; all that restrains him from acting is public opinion and the support of the Houses and cults. If the government moves on the Church without damn solid evidence of wrongdoing…”

“It would be the Enchanter Wars all over again,” Jasmine whispered.

“Probably not that bad,” said Basra, “but it’s enough of an issue that the Throne having any legitimate, actionable grievance is an existential threat to Justinian’s ambitions. He has been frantically rebuilding bridges; the two main fronts appear to be this business and what’s unfolding in Puna Dara. The Archpope is setting up those loyal to him but whom he doesn’t need to take a fall, and prove his goodwill toward the Silver Throne.”

“And that’s why their moves have been so…reckless and unwise,” Layla said eagerly. “He’s directing them to make mistakes on purpose!”

“Oh, he’s not directing this,” Basra said grimly. “That would leave a trail Imperial Intelligence can follow, and Justinian is far too clever for that. No, it’s as simple as placing incompetent people in positions of leadership, and letting events unfold naturally—hence Ildrin Falaridjad. No one who has worked with that whingeing, glory-hounding nitwit would place her in charge of a fruit stand, much less a conspiracy.”

“Wait,” Jasmine said, “what’s happening in Puna Dara?”

“None of your business!” Syrinx barked. “You little nincompoops have caused enough damage! If you truly have no regard for your own welfare, as seems to be the case, then at least quit messing up the efforts of people who can actually do this work!”

“This is a conflict between the Universal Church and the Silver Throne, ultimately,” Darling said in a calmer tone. “Everyone you’ve encountered so far is considered expendable by the real players, including yourselves, and us. This is over your pay grade, kids. We have contacts within the Imperial Government and every cult we could reach moving to clean up the conspirators as we speak. This is going to unfold quickly, and it’s going to get a lot messier before it gets cleaned up. The best thing you can do now is hunker down and butt out. Let the Legions keep you safe until this blows over.”

“And if you can’t manage that,” Basra added disdainfully, “at least try not to get any more useful witnesses murdered.”

“Well,” Darius said after a short pause, “no promises, but we’ll see what we can do.”

 

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13 – 20

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“All right,” Inspector Jaahri said in a weary tone, “one more time, then. Miss Sakhavenid found—”

“With all respect, Inspector,” Glory said, finally with open sharpness, “we have been over this six times now. It is neither a long nor a complex story.”

“I find that repetition helps weed out accidental little falsehoods that tend to creep into any narrative,” the Inspector replied, matching Glory’s stare flatly. “Or do you imagine yourself to be an expert on Imperial investigative procedure?”

“It is not procedure for you to have dismissed the entire house full of guests,” Jasmine interjected.

“Quiet, girl,” Jaahri snapped, shooting her a sidelong look.

“Each of those,” she pressed on, “was a potential witness and suspect, and I know you did not have time to interview them all in detail—”

“Sergeant,” the Inspector said loudly, “if that young woman interrupts me again, take her into custody.”

The tension in the room increased significantly, and it had not been slight to begin with. Glory and her staff for the evening had been gathered in the downstairs parlor at the insistence of the Inspector, along with Schwartz and Ami. The rest of the house had been cleared out, at Jaahri’s insistence, leaving them alone with eight Imperial soldiers, who had positioned themselves in a ring around the civilians. Their demeanor was cold almost to the point of aggression; they stared balefully at the gathered Eserites (and Vesker and Salyrite) as if expecting to have to break out wands at any moment. A rather peculiar attitude for soldiers to have toward a group of young servants whom they had not been informed were Guild apprentices.

Smythe was gliding smoothly around the chamber, offering tea to each soldier in turn, and being irritably rebuffed every time. Which, of course, did not ruffle his equanimity in the slightest.

“Why are your men not investigating the house, or the crime scene?” Glory asked, her tone again deceptively mild.

“Madam,” Jaahri said impatiently, folding his arms, “I will ask the questions, if you don’t mind—”

“I mind,” she interrupted. “In fact, I have had just about enough of this. It beggars belief that you would dismiss an entire house full of suspects only to sit here grilling those least likely to have been implicated in this crime.”

“Don’t presume that I know nothing of this matter except what I’ve learned here tonight,” the Inspector retorted. “I already have my suspects, Ms. Sharvineh, thank you for your concern. For instance, the late Mr. Treadwell was not a social creature, and in particular was last seen in seclusion due to an embarrassing misstep within his own cult. Someone exerted significant pressure to bring him out to this event…at which he was subsequently murdered. And as luck would have it, I happen to know already who did so.”

“You accuse me of this?” She raised one eyebrow, her expression artfully skeptical.

“I am not yet ready to make accusations,” Jaahri replied, tucking his notebook away in an inner pocket of his coat. “But I am well aware, Ms. Sharvineh, that there is an ongoing matter here, and that you have attempted to conceal the connection from me. This group of young people very closely matches the description of a group of Thieves’ Guild apprentices who were involved in the burglary of a temple of Avei, an event connected to Mr. Treadwell being reprimanded by his superiors in the Collegium. Now, it would seem he has been silenced.”

“Now, that’s real interesting,” Tallie snapped. “Since Schwartz and Ami weren’t part of—”

“Hzzt!” Ross grunted, driving an elbow into her side nearly hard enough to knock her over. Glory glanced over at Tallie, letting out a soft sigh.

“And that is an admission,” Jaahri said with grim satisfaction. “I believe you had all better accompany me to the barracks to discuss this further, in more detail.”

“She is right, though,” Glory said thoughtfully, holding up a hand to forestall Darius, who had straightened up and unfolded his arms at the Inspector’s last comment. “Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Talaari are not involved in that. Why would you see fit to detain them? Herschel is a guest this evening—the only one you did not dismiss. And I cannot fathom what connection you think my paid musician might have to the murder.”

“The fact that you know less than I is the reason this will be quickly solved,” Inspector Jaahri stated. “Sergeant, start gathering these people up, all of—damn it, will you go away?” he snapped at Smythe, who had offered him a canape. The Butler bowed in silence and retreated to stand by the door. Jasmine glanced at him once, pressing her lips together; Smythe’s act had effectively removed him from the soldiers’ consideration except as a buzzing nuisance, and now he had placed himself in control of the room’s primary exit, holding a tray which would serve as either weapon or shield. Clearly, these troops were not accustomed to dealing with Butlers.

“Hershel,” Glory said calmly, “what do you have for neutralizing enemies in a crowd?”

“You are on thin ice, Sharvineh,” Jaahri warned.

“In fact I’ve got just the thing!” Schwartz replied, while Meesie bristled on his shoulder, chattering at the Inspector. “Cooked it up after our last go-round. You know, the one where we trounced a contingent of Svennish intelligence agents?” He cast a pointed look at Jaahri, who hesitated in the act of opening his mouth again. “Controlled chain lightning. I can cast it to arc only to targets I designate; a quick and clean way to clear out a room of mixed hostiles and friendlies. I’d sort of rather not, though. Lightning has a tendency to be lethal.”

“Are you aware that threatening a duly appointed agent of the Silver Throne is a crime, Mr. Schwartz?” the Inspector grated.

“Are you aware of the penalty for corruption for officers of the Emperor’s law?” Jasmine asked quietly.

“That does it,” Jaahri snapped, pointing at her. “Sergeant, arrest that one. Now.”

A man wearing sergeant’s stripes glanced at Jasmine, then at Schwartz, and swallowed. “Sir…”

“Did I stutter?” the Inspector asked incredulously, rounding on him.

“A thought occurs to me,” Glory said idly, inspecting her flawlessly manicured nails. “We know that poor Mr. Treadwell was involved in a conspiracy which has been pursuing these apprentices. All of us had been operating on the assumption, however, that this was strictly a matter among the cults. I confess it simply did not occur to me that there would be enemy agents among the Imperial Army. And yet, I am stymied as to why else you would choose to dismiss most of the possible suspects from investigation, Inspector, or how you would know to include Mr. Schwartz and the bard in this…net, of yours. Tell me, what do you think will happen when I bring my own influence to bear upon you?” A feline smile uncoiled itself across her lips. “I am not, as I suspect you know, without powerful friends.”

“You have managed to say the worst possible thing available to you in this circumstance, Sharvineh,” Jaahri said. “You are all under arrest, and I strongly suggest you comply voluntarily. Resisting his Majesty’s—”

Smythe interrupted him by clearing his throat loudly; the Butler, in fact, was in the process of slipping back into the room, having ducked out while everyone was distracted. Jaahri whirled on him, reaching into a pocket of his coat, and one of the soldiers actually drew a wand. Smythe ignored all of them, directing himself to a point in midair near the center of the parlor.

“Bishops Darling and Syrinx to see you, madam,” he intoned, stepping aside.

They paced inside in lockstep, both wearing their formal Church robes and tabards, but both moved with the graceful stride of a pair of leopards, their eyes snapping to Inspector Jaahri as soon as they entered the room. Even the ecclesiastical uniforms did not detract from the effect; these were plainly here as Eserite and Avenist, not Church officials.

“Oh, now, don’t let us interrupt you, Inspector,” Darling said in an uncharacteristically flat tone.

Behind them, three more women strode into the parlor, immediately fanning out to assert full control of the exit; Flora, Fauna, and Jenell Covrin also stared coldly, making a point of watching the assembled soldiers.

“Yes, by all means,” Syrinx growled, fondling the ornate hilt of her sword. “Finish your thought.”


Akhatrya rapped on the wooden door frame even as he stepped into the room without waiting to be invited; the palace seneschal enjoyed certain privileges as well as responsibilities, and being on hand to assist the royal family whether they sought him out or not involved some blending of the two. It was late, and this wasn’t strictly his responsibility—any number of lesser servants could have seen to it—but he made a point of keeping an eye on any of the family who were under unusual stress, or acting out of the ordinary.

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

She did not commonly choose to spend time in her father’s office, or any place predominated by papers and books. Neither did the King, but Rajakhan never shirked his duties, no matter how tedious he found them. It was a safe bet, however, that when the King did not need to be actively poring over documents, he would be elsewhere, and so Ruda had had the office to herself all night. She’d spent the evening having clerks bring her a variety of textbooks, financial records and copies of several treaties. Now, Akhatrya entered to find her hunched over an open volume of conversion tables, muttering to herself and tracing one fingertip across a page as she read.

“Would you like anything, your Highness?” he asked diffidently.

“Think I got everything I wanted, thanks,” Ruda muttered without looking up.

The seneschal smiled faintly. “Good. I meant more in the way of food or drink, however. Perhaps a pillow?”

“It isn’t that late,” she said, finally lifting her eyes to frown at him. The office had two narrow windows looking out across the battlements at the harbor, which showed nothing but darkness at this hour. It was not dim, thanks to the fairy lamps.

“Very good, your Highness,” Akhatrya said, bowing. “I am, of course, at your disposal, should you have questions about anything you read.”

She was already frowning at the book again, and absently shook her head. The seneschal waited another moment before bowing again, despite the fact she was no longer looking at him, and turning to go.

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

“Your Highness?” He turned back to face her, folding his hands in front of himself.

Ruda almost grudgingly tore her gaze away from the columns of figures she was studying. “Let me pose you a hypothetical.”

“I am at your service.”

“Suppose you worked for a King or Queen who wanted to change the standard of measurements we use from the common system to the dwarven system. How would you advise them to go about implementing that?”

He hesitated for a moment, thinking. “Well… In honesty, Princess, my first recommendation would be not to.”

She drummed her fingers once on another book, staring at him. When she said nothing further, he continued.

“Forcing changes in people’s way of life from the position of the Crown is always tricky, Princess, and should be done as sparingly as possible. This is true for all rulers, but most especially for those governing a people as free-spirited and prone to defiance as the Punaji. Any hint of heavy-handed action without a clear and specific purpose will agitate the populace. That, in particular, would impose costs upon everyone, most especially merchants. Converting from one system—any kind of system—to another is always a difficult transition.”

She let out a soft huff, and turned her head to scowl at the dark windows. “If there’s one thing I would expect of Punaji, it’s not to carry on following a mindless tradition when there are better, more effective ways. Especially a tradition that it turns out was created by the Elder Gods for the specific fucking purpose of holding people back and making our lives difficult. Akhatrya, have you ever looked at the tables of dwarven measurements? It’s all so…efficient. Everything’s derived from a base measurement designed to be specifically useful. Everything scales in neat increments of ten—no figuring or fumbling involved, if you can damn well count you can do shit it takes a trained accountant to handle now. No wonder the dwarves switched over. If they can do it, why the hell can’t anyone else? Why not the Punaji? What the economy alone would save in the long run is more than worth the hassle of converting!”

“If only people saw life in terms of neat costs and rewards,” he said wryly. “Your Highness, I have not been party to your political education. Are you aware of the systems of government used by the dwarves?”

“Mm, not in much detail,” she admitted. “I could probably tell you more about Tiraan or Sifanese or Arkanian politics than the Five Kingdoms. They’re pretty insular an’ they bend over backwards to accommodate us whenever we do business; I’ve mostly learned how to show ’em proper manners when they visit and leave their inner workings alone. Hell, even the Sifanese are less standoffish about people getting into their internal business.”

“I see,” Akhatrya said thoughtfully. “Are you acquainted with the concept of socialism?”

“No, but I like it already,” she replied, grinning. “Sounds cuddly.”

“It’s an idea which is implemented, in one form or another, in the governing policies of each of the Five Kingdoms,” he explained. “Basically, the core contention of socialism is that nothing which is necessary for life should be the subject of personal profit, for anyone. Food, lodgings, and medical care, for example, are all provided to all citizens equally by the state. The different dwarven nations have varying standards of what is necessary; by and large, they are all more highly organized at the state level than any human nation, and their governments provide a very wide range of services compared to ours. They have elaborate public education, for example, all the way through the university level, and state-sponsored arts, museums, scientific research, loans of business capital… Obviously, this necessitates a very high level of government involvement in all aspects of life, and is funded by a heavy income tax, levied progressively according to individual wealth.”

Ruda stared at him in blank silence for a long moment.

“Well,” she said at last, “that’s not quite the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard, but I respect it for trying.”

Akhatrya grinned. “Consider this, though. Even with most of their economies in shambles and gross domestic products flatlined at best for the last ten years, the Five Kingdoms have universally low crime, almost no unemployment, and zero homelessness. Most societies in the state of economic vulnerability they currently suffer succumb to further related maladies, notably outbreaks of disease. No such thing has happened in the Dwarnskolds. They suffer some privation, but they do so equally. The strong do not prey upon the weak, and society itself endures without leaning upon its most vulnerable members.”

“Akhatrya, it sounds like you like this cockamamie scheme,” she exclaimed. “You can’t possibly be thinking of trying something like that in fucking Puna Dara! We’d have a revolution within five fucking minutes!”

“And that,” he said, nodding, “is exactly my point. I heartily approve of you studying the ways of our neighbors to learn from their strengths, Princess. But never forget that we are not dwarves. We are not even Imperials. We are Punaji, and not every useful idea that exists in the world would be useful to us. Some, though they might indeed prove to be assets, are simply too far from the core of who we are. The people will not tolerate anything they see as an attack upon the spirit of our nation.”

She turned again to frown at the window, but this time the expression was more thoughtful than disgruntled.

“The spirit of our nation,” Ruda said quietly, “is already under attack. A long, slow one that we can’t seem to do anything to halt. There’s no room for a pirate nation in the world as it’s shaping up. We already depend on the Empire’s goodwill to prevent one of the other naval powers of the Azure Sea from invading us, and isn’t that a constant fucking insult. Sooner or later, we have to either change who we are, or…give up. Forget who we are, be absorbed by Tiraas like the Calderaan and the Stalweiss and the Onkawi and…” She trailed off, and swallowed heavily. “Gods. I hope Mama and Papa are gone before it comes to that. I don’t want them to have to see it.”

After a moment, Akhatrya stepped quietly over to the desk, and reached out to lay a hand upon her shoulder. It was not strictly appropriate, but the Rock was probably the least formal of the government palaces in all the world. They were, after all, Punaji.

Ruda heaved a sigh and cleared her throat, turning back to regard him with a freshly incisive expression, and he let his hand fall, stepping back.

“We’re already the Five Kingdoms’ biggest trading partner, though,” she said. “Everything they make and wanna sell overseas comes through Puna Dara. Since the Narisian Treaty they’ve vastly increased the business they do that way instead of selling to the Empire, too. There is no possible way Punaji merchants aren’t already familiar with dwarven systems of weights and measures.”

“That is true,” he allowed. “Most have found it profitable to endure our neighbors’ little peculiarities. And if the systems are indeed as superior as you say, there may well be some who already favor them.”

“So, getting back to my original question.” Ruda leaned back in her father’s chair, staring at the far wall, and propped her (thankfully clean) boots up on a copy of a tariff agreement with the Kingdom of Stavulheim. “How to implement that, while still respecting the independent spirit of the Punaji. Since the precedent’s already there, I think we could begin by encouraging the use of dwarven standards without mandating them. Go slow, go careful, gradually get the population more acquainted with ’em an’ make sure there’s widespread acceptance before starting to switch actual government practice. Hnh, I much prefer to get shit done, but I guess you’ve gotta take your time when dealing with the egos of tens of thousands of people.”

“The safe way is the slow way, as a rule,” he agreed, smiling again.

Ruda looked back up at him, grinning. “So! You like my general strategy, then? Anything you’d add?”

“Well,” Akhatrya said, “you asked me what I would do, hypothetically, if I served a monarch who insisted on pursuing such a course. In that situation…yes, I think I would proceed much as you describe. And I also would offer thanks to the gods that my people were in the hands of a wise Queen.”

Her smile actually faltered, and the princess cleared her throat, averting her eyes. “Ah… Yeah, well, I guess—”

Both of them stiffened as an alarm bell began tolling outside the fortress, quickly followed by a second, and then more.

Ruda swung her legs back to the floor and bounded up, crossing to the window, where she pressed her face against the glass, peering out at the darkened harbor.

“What the fuck?” she exclaimed after a brief moment, then whirled and dashed for the door.


“THINK!” Ayuvesh thundered, his voice booming from the walls of the cavern.

The group actually hesitated, which was just as well for the sake of diplomacy; Vadrieny had already burst forth, both Huntsmen had bows drawn, Gabriel was brandishing both scythe and saber, and even Toby had shifted to a ready stance.

“You servants of the Pantheon are always so quick to turn to violence,” the leader of the Rust continued, bestowing on them a mocking smile from his perch atop the walking machine. At the touch of his fingers upon the chair controls, it took a lumbering step backward, then shifted, awkwardly turning itself to face them at an angle. “Really, it’s not as if I don’t know who the lot of you are. Would I actually want to start a fight with you, here, in our own sanctum? Knowing it would cost the lives of many of my comrades, and incalculable damage to our home and resources? No, no, children, rest assured, I was not challenging you to battle.”

“Y’know, for a guy who talks so much about how put-upon he is,” Fross chimed irritably, “you spout a lot of what are really easy to take as threats.”

“This is a misunderstanding,” Toby said firmly. “I honestly have no idea what’s happening, and I have no qualms at all about telling you anything you want to know about the woman who stole the screen off your gateway. I can’t even say for sure if she’s the reason for this—”

“I would be willing to put money on that,” Gabriel growled.

Toby shot him a quelling look. “But we certainly have no attachment to her. Her behavior was not exactly friendly.”

Ayuvesh regarded him sardonically while he spoke, then lowered his gaze to study something set amid the controls on the arm of his mount’s seat. “Hummm. And yet, I find no indication of someone apart from you lot creeping around…” He paused, frowning. “And yet. A screen was remotely activated, and its position is currently unknown. So…perhaps.”

“Perhaps is a starting point,” Toby said soothingly, holding up both hands. “Look, we’ve already established that none of us here wants anything to get more violent than it already has.”

“Ah, yes, so we should now lay our cards on the table,” Ayuvesh said bitterly. “As you did when you mentioned this mysterious woman as soon as you entered.”

“Honestly, man, what would you have said?” Gabriel asked in exasperation.

Vadrieny turned on him with the same tone. “Are you under the impression that you’re helping, Gabe?”

“Not usually,” he muttered.

“Let me lay out for you some other things we have established,” Ayuvesh continued, again manipulating his controls. The walker retreated further, even as the other members of the Rust scattered to man various pieces of machinery, or disappear into side tunnels. “None of us are eager to volunteer information—perhaps understandably. You kids have a tendency to perceive threats in every little thing, and respond with the promise of your considerable capacity for brute force. I, on the other hand, respond to threats by…rearranging the playing field. The best way, I find, to avoid getting into a pitched battle is to make the process so uninviting that no one seeks to offer you violence.”

“Like you did to the Silver Legions,” said Juniper.

“You seem to think that was an extreme response,” Ayuvesh said grimly. “What’s more reasonable, when presented with a large, threatening force, than to remove that force from the board, as gently as possible? But you lot aren’t a Silver Legion. You have a lot more firepower, a lot less restraint, and not half the logistical hurdles involved in doing anything. Carefully incapacitating you isn’t really a prospect, I suppose. So I must, if we are to continue these discussions, somehow ensure your good behavior. I wish I could think of a less regrettable way to do so. Truly, I do.”

He pushed a lever and the walker turned to face one of the walls, which was already shifting into motion, its innumerable machine parts whirring and shuffling like a colossal swarm of ants. Metal arms extended from dozens of points, each bearing view screens of various sizes, and began fitting them together into a single, huge display, its image clear despite the lines of connection running across it and its wildly uneven edges.

The cobbled-together screen showed them an image of the city harbor under the moonlight. As they watched, the waters began to stir.

“I expect you kids to be respectful, henceforth,” Ayuvesh chided, “for the sake of Puna Dara.”


Ruda burst out of the fortress doors onto the battlements, racing for the foremost tower which extended into the harbor with Akhatrya right on her heels. It was chaos, but organized chaos; soldiers dashed alongside them, moving themselves into proper order, as more assembled in ranks in the Rock’s main courtyard below.

The princess and the seneschal reached the tower, troops hustling out of their way, and tore up its steps to the platform on top, where Ruda pressed herself against the crenelated wall, staring incredulously out over the harbor.

Ships were moored, but there was fortunately no active traffic at this hour, and thus no vessels were lost in the disturbance. The spot near the center of the bay, which alternately bubbled as if pressed upon from below and descended into a whirlpool, abruptly exploded, spraying water as far as the docks.

The thing that rose up from within was titanic, a thick, sinuous shape plated in irregular metal over its coiled scales. A row of metallic spikes ran along its spine, with lengths of wire connecting them and giving off sparks and arcs of lightning which danced across the surface of the water. Most of the massive sea serpent’s head was original flesh and bone, but its wedge-like lower jaw was entirely metal, and its right eye had been covered over with a huge patch connected to the plates and spikes climbing up its back. Into this was set a tremendous green fairy lamp which cast a sickly glow across the whole harbor.

Giant sea serpents did not come this close to the shore, they very rarely breached the surface and definitely did not vocalize. The augmented monstrosity finished showing that it did not respect any of these rules by throwing back its head and emitting a mighty roar which had a distinct undertone of metal scraping against metal.

“Are you fucking kidding me?!” Ruda roared right back, turning to Akhatrya and pointing accusingly out at the beast. “Look at this! This is what happens when I leave those assholes unsupervised!”

 

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13 – 17

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Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

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“I’m unaccustomed to scolding, but I have to say I am rather disappointed with the lot of you.”

Glory, indeed, did not look upset with them, but only pensive. Regardless, the assembled apprentices mostly lowered their eyes abashedly in response. Schwartz and Ami exchanged a glance, he uncertainly, she with an arched eyebrow.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…in our defense…”

“In your defense,” Glory said with a languid little smile, “you are neophyte Guild members, without personal sponsors or the likelihood of obtaining such, and your experiences have given you cause to be somewhat paranoid. Still, I should have thought the overarching lesson of your last round of troubles was that the Guild can be trusted to have your back when enemies are pursuing you. I seem to recall that was settled in part by several senior members who do not get along rallying together to defend you.”

“It’s a fair criticism,” Jasmine agreed with a sigh.

Schwartz cleared his throat. “Yes, well… I don’t know much about Guild philosophy, but as an outsider I have a hard time seeing where you’re coming from. I mean, every cult should have the assumption that members would support one another, right? And…the entire problem here is that some individuals are turning against their cults via some kind of…” He trailed off, looking flustered, as Glory turned an inquisitive gaze on him.

“If anything,” Ami observed, “the Guild’s practice of deliberately fostering competition, I should think, would make them more susceptible.”

“It’s about a statement of core philosophy,” Rasha said, in the quiet but controlled tone she had been cultivating. “Each religion is about something specific, something beyond a simple group identity. Whether members do or don’t back one another in a crisis is in service to that idea. In the case of the Thieves’ Guild, it’s about resisting corruption and overweening ambition. Glory’s right, but…so are you.”

“Listen to you,” Tallie said fondly, lightly touching Rasha’s hair. “Lecturing us on theology now! Apprenticeship’s done you a world of good.” She and Layla had perched on either side of Glory’s apprentice, who had taken a position in the center of the couch and sat with deliberately demure, almost regal posture. Rasha had changed a great deal in the month since moving out of the apprentice dormitory; every time they visited she seemed to be experimenting with a different style of clothing, which had ranged from androgynous to almost excessively feminine. Today’s was closer to the latter end of the spectrum, an embroidered robe cut and padded to suggest curved lines. Despite the obvious growth of her self-confidence, though, Rasha plainly felt more comfortable with the physical proximity of girls than the boys, a fact which Tallie and Layla in particular seemed to have immediately picked up on.

“Well, let’s not turn this into a theological discussion,” Glory advised, smiling wryly at them. “Those are tedious even when they don’t turn into arguments. What’s done is done and I’m not interested in recrimination; that’s Style’s job.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius groaned. “She’s gonna string us up by our feet…”

“She did tell us not to leave the Casino’s immediate environs, didn’t she?” Layla mused. “Oh, dear.”

“I suppose,” Glory continued thoughtfully, “I am partially to blame for your general predicament. Being too closely associated with well-established Guild members is, according to the scuttlebutt, largely why none of you have been approached by potential sponsorship despite several of you being very promising.”

“If by blame,” said Jasmine, “you refer to you helping save our lives, I assure you no one here objects.”

“Hear, hear,” Ross grunted.

“Still, that aspect of the situation is worth considering,” Glory said. She glanced at Rasha, and a knowing smile passed between them.

“Uh oh,” Darius accused. “You two are scheming something.”

“Not even subtly,” Rasha replied, smirking.

“For the time being,” Glory said, “let’s return to the matter at hand. I was not aware of a conspiracy such as you describe, but between Mr. Schwartz’s adventures within the Collegium and this Sister Ildrin trying to waylay you, it’s clear that some such thing must be afoot.”

“Well, that’s discouraging,” Tallie muttered. “You’re the most connected person we know…”

“People often misunderstand the nature of a conspiracy,” said Glory. “They are, by definition, things of short duration and limited membership; depending as they do upon secrecy, exposure becomes more inevitable the longer they go on and the more people become involved. Shadowy groups blamed for a wide range of problems are mostly a myth, but conspiracies happen all the time. By the same token, even someone such as myself, who takes great pains to be in on all the gossip, is unlikely to learn of such a group. More significantly, this means that while I can easily point you to a number of figures in various cults who are known to be Church sympathizers, it is very unlikely that most of them are involved.”

“Do you have…any ideas?” Jasmine asked hesitantly.

“Well, first of all,” Glory replied with that knowing little smile of hers, “you are off to a decent start by coming to me, because what we need to do is involve the Guild. Here we have a secretive group clearly trying to amass and abuse power; putting a stop to nonsense of this kind is exactly why the Guild exists.”

“Noted,” Ross said, nodding emphatically.

“Second,” their hostess continued, “we must pare down the prospects. I believe you had the idea to use your divinations, Mr. Schwartz?”

“Ah, yes,” he said, absently patting Meesie, who was being unusually quiet and docile while in Glory’s house. “My craft can help us narrow down prospects more than identify specific individuals, so if you have other thoughts…”

“In fact, I have,” she replied, settling back in her armchair in a manner subtly evocative of a queen upon her throne. “There are more mundane methods, of course. I gather that Mr. Schwartz and Miss Talaari have your trust in this matter, apprentices?”

“Ami has been very helpful to us,” Tallie said sweetly. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Meesie began squeaking violently, and actually tumbled off Schwartz’s shoulder to the arm of his chair, where she rolled around on her back, squealing with mirth. He sighed; Ami just gave Tallie a cool sidelong look.

“Then in the meantime,” Glory said, “we will pursue established leads. Mr. Schwartz, how was it you first learned rumors of this embezzlement activity within your cult?”

He straightened up, frowning slightly. “Well… Sort of related to how I met these guys, actually. Bishop Throale was interested in making, um, less than official contacts within the Guild, like my friends here. He was securing some reagents that might be profitable in black market dealings to try to… Actually maybe I wasn’t supposed to mention that.” He swallowed, glancing over at the windows. Ami rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Glory said pleasantly. “Go on?”

“Well, so, because of that, he and I were more involved in the Collegium’s reagent stocks than either of us would normally be and he mentioned some things seemed to be going missing. Records not adding up with inventory, boring stuff like that. The Bishop didn’t seem concerned but I went and double-checked and yes, there were some enchanting supplies gone…the specific ones used for bladed weapon and armor maintenance charms. Stuff you don’t see much anymore, only the Silver Legions use them in any quantity. I mentioned it to them,” he gestured at the apprentices, “and Jasmine had apparently…well, there we’re past my part in it, so, y’know.”

“Any specifics?” Glory asked, daintily crossing her legs. “Remember, we are looking for names.”

Schwartz frowned and chewed his lip while Meesie climbed back up his sleeve to her perch. “Um. Well, Suvi Mosvedhi is in charge of the magical storehouses overall. She has lots of people working under her and I hardly know any of them. Let’s see… Carruthers Treadwell was the specific fellow who coordinated with the Avenists on exchanges…”

“Carruthers Treadwell.” Glory leaned forward suddenly, grinning. “Who, just yesterday, was abruptly pulled from his duties by the Chancellor of the Collegium for reasons which are not known outside its walls. It seems we have our in.”

“Who’s this guy?” Ross asked. “And how’re we gonna…in him?”

“Simple,” Glory said with a satisfied smirk. “I am having a little soiree tonight, as I do most evenings. I shall simply ensure that he is present. As will be the lot of you.”

“Um.” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “Carruthers is a bit of a houseplant. I’ve never heard of him attending a social event voluntarily.”

“He has never had Tamisin Sharvineh desire his presence,” she said glibly. “It’s as good as done.”

“Meanwhile,” Rasha added, “that gives us only a few hours to get you lot into some suitable clothes.”

“Ooh!” Layla and Ami both straightened up with sudden smiles.

Jasmine, on the other hand, went a shade paler. “Oh, hell.”


It was a much truncated group which went to meet the Guild’s emissary. Only the queen and Principia had been requested, but Ruda inserted herself into the party; her mother expressed approval at this, while Principia wisely kept her thoughts to herself.

The seneschal conducted them to the Rock’s throne room, where their guest had been asked to wait. It was smaller and generally less grandiose than its counterpart in Tiraas, its stone walls decorated only with banners and old weapons. Even the throne was little more than a large wooden chair, made from the timbers of the ship once captained by a long-ago Punaji king. Narrow windows along one side of the room admitted afternoon sunlight, augmented by strategically placed modern fairy lamps.

There were few seats in the room, just benches along the walls, but their guest had been led to one of these. A small folding table had been brought and laid out with tea and a plate of small sandwiches and pastries, with a servant attending closely. This likely wasn’t usual policy for guests in the throne room, but one glance at Quinn Lagrande banished any question as to its necessity.

Her lined face and pale gray hair revealed her advanced age even without the heavy stoop she suffered despite being seated. Incongruously, she was dressed like a frontier adventurer, with an open-collared shirt and trousers tucked into heavy boots. A wide leather belt around her waist carried a holstered wand and a dagger. At their arrival, Lagrande braced herself with one hand on a hickory cane and stood with a small grunt of effort.

“There you are,” she said before any of them could speak, her voice scratchy with age but still strong. “I gather I interrupted something important?”

“Yes,” Anjal replied without explanation. “I am Anjal Punaji, and this is my daughter, Zaruda. I believe you know Principia Locke.”

“Mm hm,” Lagrande said, giving the elf a wry look. “Oh, we go way back. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t kneel, your Majesty. The spirit is willing, but the spine and knees lack respect for authority.”

“I’d feel obligated to stop you if you tried,” Anjal said, smiling with genuine amusement. “And if you must be formal, I prefer Captain to Majesty. I damn well earned that one. What can we do for you?”

“At issue here is what we can do for you,” the old woman replied, shifting her focus to Principia. “Keys, where the hell have you been? You’ve been in town almost two days and for some damned reason we had to seek you out. Taking in the sights?”

“I’ve seen all the sights long ago, and climb down outta my nose, Heckle,” Principia retorted, folding her arms. “You were on the agenda, trust me. My squad was just heading your way when this most admirable young lady press-ganged us.” She cocked a thumb at Ruda, who tipped her hat.

“Yep, I’ll take the blame for that one. When Principia Locke shows up in town, I figured it was best to put a boot on her neck before the situation got even worse. Sounds like you know what I mean.”

“Heh.” Lagrande grinned at her. To judge by their yellowed state, they were all her original teeth. “That’s not a ‘general principles’ action toward a veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild. What’d she do to you?”

“I think you had something to tell us?” Principia said irritably.

“Nothing major, she just tried to drug me that one time.”

“You tried to drug a member of the Punaji royal family?” Lagrande turned an incredulous stare on Principia. “How in the hell has nobody killed you yet, Keys?”

“Oh, that’s rich. Look who’s asking who how she’s still alive—”

“HEY.” Anjal was accustomed to belting orders on deck in a storm; at that range she could be positively deafening. “If you Eserites wanted to put on a minstrel show, there are plenty of street corners not being preached on right now. Did you come here for a reason other than that, Lagrande?”

“Of course, your…Captain. Humble apologies.” Far from looking contrite, the old woman grinned unabashedly. “Yes, you’re right. We do have important information, which was being held for Keys, here, but then the Princess and her friends picked her up and we decided this had better not wait. To begin with, for the benefit of the young and the foreign in this audience, are you aware of just why so many of the Rust’s upper echelons have artificial limbs?”

“Because they’ve got crazy advanced magic and that’s a convenient way of showing it off?” Ruda suggested.

“True.” Lagrande nodded. “That’s definitely part of their motivation. I guess I should have asked why they have such a need for them.”

“Most of them are the Broken,” Anjal said in a much quieter tone. Principia gave her a neutral look, but Ruda frowned in open confusion. “This was well before your time, Zari, and be thankful for that. It used to be common practice for beggars on the docks to use children to mooch from the merchants. Children are inherently more sympathetic, and they sometimes made them more so by deliberately maiming them. Cutting out eyes, hacking off limbs.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Anjal clenched her jaw. “Your grandfather addressed this problem by creatively punishing anyone he caught doing it, which of course did not help. It was thanks to your father’s early actions that no one in your generation has had to suffer this.”

“What actions?” she asked. “I mean, if…”

“That’s the thing about governing,” the queen said with a sigh. “What works is rarely spectacular or romantic. If you want to put a stop to begging, you have to make sure that people have better things to do, and that doing them is worth their time. He did increase patrols on the docks, but more importantly he instituted economic reforms, created jobs, aggressively courted the dwarves and Narisians to engage in maritime trade through Puna Dara… All the boring shit that actually improves people’s lives. Such reforms are often hard to push through because whenever there has been an impoverished underclass for a long time, there are wise old men who think the problem with the poor is that they’re lazy and just won’t be helped.” She curled her lip contemptuously. “Arrogant bullshit, unworthy of a Punaji. People inherently want to work. We all have a need to create, to act, to contribute; the single most important thing for human happiness is taking responsibility for one’s own life. If society lets people do this, they’ll do their part. There will always be a few layabouts and general assholes, but they are a bare minority.”

“Our underboss is one of the Broken,” Lagrande added. “Fang gets around on one leg and one arm. He was never approached, though. The Rust are strategic; like all fringe movements they started by targeting the vulnerable, which didn’t include Eserites. But I didn’t bring it up just to make conversation. How’d you like to know where their secret headquarters is?”

Anjal scowled. “Is that all you came here for? They operate out of a warehouse on the docks. It’s not a secret.”

“Wrong!” Lagrande said gleefully, thumping her cane on the floor for emphasis. “That’s where they openly operate from, and there’s nothing in there but religious wacko paraphernalia. Places to keep and feed people, some administrative apparatus. But their true home, that’s all tied in with the sad, stupid story of the Broken. They’ve got a place in the old mines, and that has to be where they keep the crazy shit that makes their crazy magic work. Does the kid need a refresher on this as well?”

“The kid has a name,” Ruda retorted.

“Yes, a shiny new one,” said Anjal, giving her a disgruntled look. “But she’s right, Zari. When Broken kids got too old to be cute anymore, a lot of them were sent to work the mines in the mountains outside the city.”

“Whoah, what mines?” Ruda demanded, frowning. “I was always told we didn’t do much mining.”

“We don’t, but not because we can’t. There are minerals in those mountains; copper, mostly, some iron and gems. But Puna Dara has always done more business in trade than production, and we’ve prospered especially in the last ten years by cornering the market on the Five Kingdoms’ maritime trade. Your father managed that, in part, by closing down our domestic mining operations and buying minerals from the dwarves. After what the treaty between Tiraas and Tar’naris did to them, that bought enormous goodwill. So.” She turned a thoughtful gaze on Lagrande. “There are mines and quarries around Puna Dara, and nearly all are abandoned. And, not being idiots, we regularly have them patrolled and searched.”

“In a pretty cursory fashion,” Lagrande agreed, thumping her cane again. “A mine’s a great place to hide stuff.”

“How is it you know this, when the Punaji don’t?” Principia asked.

“Same way we knew you’d spent your time in Puna Dara visiting the Avenists, creeping on the street preachers, and hounding after rumors in dockside bars instead of coming to us,” Lagrand replied acidly. “The Thieves’ Guild in this city is six old grayhairs and two very bored apprentices led by a cripple. The last damn thing we’re about to do is climb up into the mountains our damn selves and then climb down into some godforsaken mineshaft after insane cultists who wield impossible magics. But what we can do is know things.” She grinned fiendishly. “Even after you sent Peepers off to the Empire—and by the way, asshole, thank you so much—we are connected in this city and the bulk of what we do is listening and watching. Anybody hears a rumor that even might be valuable to anybody else, they bring it to the Guild.”

“That’s true,” Anjal agreed, somewhat sourly. “They usually know interesting things well before the Crown does.”

“So we weren’t about to go after them,” Lagrande continued. “And we specifically have not shared this information with the Avenists or the Punaji government after what happened to the Fourth Silver Legion. Because they’d have no choice but to take action, and that would’ve ended…pretty damn badly. But!” The old woman grinned savagely and thumped her cane for emphasis. “Speaking of things we know, now it seems you’ve got two paladins, a dryad, and the biggest, meanest demon to walk the earth in a thousand years. And that’s another matter, isn’t it?”


Justinian always made time in his schedule to think; quite apart from the necessity of his meditations in keeping his mind calm and alert under the pressure of his duties, he could not function without the ability to carefully lay plans. Reacting swiftly to events as they developed was fine and essential, but a man without his own strategies, attentively crafted, was at the mercy of fortune.

Even so, he cherished the few extra opportunities that came up to lose himself in thought. Time spent navigating the labyrinth deep under the Cathedral, for example… Or situations like this one, in which he could do nothing but wait.

He sat before the magic mirror, watching mist swirl meaninglessly within it, and considering the current situation.

Events in Puna Dara were developing faster than he had intended. Once again, Tellwyrn butting in had created this difficulty, though this time it was not an unforeseen development. Princess Zaruda’s intervention had always been a possibility, and while bringing her friends along was the worst case scenario, he had already mulled what to do in this event. Now, it seemed they might be on a course to demolish the Rust far too soon. He needed that to be a struggle; the allied forces of the Church, the Empire, the Punaji and the cults had to be bonded through shared adversity. That also meant the Rust had to be presented as a very credible threat. Their attack on the Silver Legions had done that, but he knew what it had cost them, and that those young titans would cleave through their ranks far too easily if allowed. They must endure long enough for all their enemies to unite against them. He had his current operation in Tiraas working to secure his good name with the Silver Throne, but after the incident with Rector’s machine there was far too much damage there for him to trust a single ploy to fix it.

Could he distract them? Unlikely, and risky. Anything else he did in Puna Dara could create complications that would threaten his own interests. If he could somehow peel the students, or at least a few of them—maybe even just one—away from the city for a while, that might suffice.

Even alone in his office, he maintained strict control, and so did not smile. But the Archpope permitted himself a slight softening of his expression as his agile mind seized upon a solution. An elegant one, which worked neatly alongside the matter to which he was now attending. It would cost him nothing but a little extra effort…

As if summoned by the shift in his thoughts, the mirror cleared, revealing the worried face of Lorelin Reich.

“Your Holiness,” she said in clear relief, bowing her head. “Thank you so much for this. I know it must be an imposition.”

“Lorelin,” he said with a gracious smile. “You have earned my trust many times over; if you send word that we must speak, I can only assume that it is so. What troubles you, child? I hope you are not endangering your good name with the Empire.”

“I fear…I may be,” she said, frowning, and Justinian took note of the open worry in her expression. A model Vidian, she was adept at concealing her true thoughts, usually. “Your Holiness… I am not working directly with Imperial Intelligence. The told me they’d call on me when I was needed, and when a Hand of the Emperor summoned me, I assumed that was it. But…” The priestess swallowed heavily. “I… This must sound crazy, I realize, but…I think this man is insane.”

Justinian put on an expression of deep concern and leaned forward, revealing none of his satisfaction. This business, at least, was proceeding according to plan and on schedule. “In what way?”

“At first I thought his machinations seemed inept because I didn’t know all the details,” she said, “but more and more… He seems to be trying to provoke a confrontation with Tellwyrn which there is no possible way he can win. I can’t imagine the Empire would do something so reckless, when they’ve handled her so carefully since the last Empress’s reign. And…it’s his personal conduct, your Holiness. I am accustomed to schemers, but I have been around mentally unstable people. This man is the latter. But I know that’s impossible. He is a Hand of the Emperor.”

Justinian drew in a deep breath, and let it out very slowly. “I…am extremely glad you have come to me with this, Lorelin. All right…what I am about to tell you must be strictly confidential. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely, your Holiness,” she replied, nodding eagerly.

“There was recently a problem with the Hands of the Emperor,” he stated. “The details don’t concern you and may be dangerous to know. What is important is that one of them may have gone rogue at the end of it.”

The color drained from her face.

“This is what you must do, Lorelin,” Justinian said earnestly. “Contact your handlers at Imperial Intelligence, and tell them what you just told me.”

“But…” The poor woman was clearly at her wit’s end; she forgot herself so far as to bite her lip. “Your Holiness, the Hand specifically instructed me to avoid contact with any other government entity.”

“Then,” Justinian said gently, “he is forcing you to violate the terms of parole. You were to remain in touch with Intelligence; by keeping you in communications silence in the last place they would look for you, he is hiding you from them. Tell them, Lorelin, exactly what you just did. You thought you were obeying the Silver Throne, but this man is dangerously unstable and may be creating instability in the Empire itself, which is what will result if a Hand of the Emperor overtly antagonizes Tellwyrn. She has, in fact, been working with Intelligence. I see little chance that they would want to move against her this way. Contact them in good faith and explain, and you will not only be upholding the terms of your plea bargain, you just might help save the Empire from one of its most immediate threats.”

Now it was she who inhaled and exhaled deeply, but nodded.

“What is he doing, exactly?”

“He’s stirring up the townspeople against Tellwyrn,” she said, frowning. “Which wouldn’t alarm me much as far as it goes, but with all the new construction and activity in Last Rock, plus the big cluster of foreign operatives up on the mountain itself… He doesn’t tell me everything, your Holiness, not by far. I know he has other assets. I don’t know what they might do, or can.”

Justinian nodded. “Then you will need to slow him down. Perhaps assist Tellwyrn in dealing with him.”

“I’m positive that he’ll know if I try to approach her.”

“I believe you,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Do not be so overt. I believe I can help you with this, Lorelin; you know as well as I that clever people can be shockingly easy to manipulate into error. It is often as simple as placing the right piece of information for the right person to find, and letting the rest of the dominoes fall. Once you tell this Hand who the Sleeper is, I suspect this whole matter may work itself out.”

 

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11 – 40

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Both carriages careened to a halt, Vandro’s skidding slightly. Tallie and Schwartz both had to cover their eyes against the sudden brightness; the roar of the explosion was enough to blot out even Meesie’s screeching.

One of the passenger doors on the front carriage swung open and Vandro himself stuck his head out. “What the hell—”

Wilberforce leaped from the driver’s seat, pivoted even as he hit the ground, and lunged back into the passenger compartment, dragging Vandro bodily with him.

“DOWN!” Schwartz tackled Tallie right off the roof before she could recover her equilibrium. Landing was instinctive to her, though it got a lot harder with a gangly witch coming down on top.

“Oof!” She pushed him away. “Have you lost your—”

“DOWN DOWN DOWN!” he bellowed, grabbing her by the shoulders and shoving her bodily at the side of Glory’s carriage. “All of you STAY IN THERE!”

Schwartz dashed to the open space between the two carriages, braced his feet, and made a double-handed lifting motion as if hoisting something heavy above his head.

Shafts of rock burst out of the ground at a steep angle, hurling clouds of snow into the air; more followed as Schwartz continued to gesticulate, grimacing, until after a few seconds he had drawn up a serviceable barricade extending up at a forty-five degree angle and blocking the ruined fortress from their view.

He was barely in time.

With a roar that put the initial explosion to shame, debris plummeted down in a massive wave, peppering the entire landscape with shattered masonry and old timbers, several of them on fire. Schwartz’s improvised rock barrier took a pounding; several large chunks broke off and one of the stone spires was broken entirely, falling to crush one fender of Vandro’s already-bedraggled carriage.

Tallie’e yelp of terror was lost in the noise; she wiggled under Glory’s carriage, arms reflexively over her head, and did not peek out again until the quiet which followed had held sway for a few seconds.

“Is it over?” Rasha asked tremulously from inside.

“Should be,” Schwartz said breathlessly, “for now. But stuff doesn’t just blow up. Somebody did that, and they have to be nearby.”

“Thanks,” Tallie said to him as she dragged herself out by one wheel. “How’d you…know?”

“It’s called fallout. My job and my religion involved being around a lot of experimental magic,” he said wryly, reaching up to soothingly pet Meesie, who was scampering back and forth along his shoulders in agitation. “Believe me, I know my way around explosions.”

“Fine work, my boy,” Vandro stated, emerging from the carriage and peering around at the damaged rock barrier.

“Hell yes!” Darius added more energetically, bounding out after him. “I told you we needed to keep this guy around! How ’bout sticking with us permanently, Schwartz? I don’t have the means to pay you a salary, but I can incentivize. You need any favors done? Pockets picked? How’d you like to marry my sister?”

“I can hear you, you preposterous oaf,” Layla snarled, leaping down from Glory’s carriage.

“Enough,” Glory said firmly, descending after her. “We are still in a predicament, here. This was our rendezvous point, and I think we have to assume we’ve just lost our reinforcements.”

Tallie gasped, turning to Jasmine, who had just emerged from the carriage and rushed to the edge of the rock barrier, staring at the burning ruins with a hollow expression. “Oh, Jas…”

“No time.” Jasmine shook herself off, turned and strode back to them. “Glory’s right; we’re now on the defensive. I suggest we pile back in and keep going. Whatever thinning of their numbers we have done tonight, it’s best to assume they have more—someone had to have done this, as Schwartz pointed out, and I’ve no way of knowing which if any of the help I called for got here…” Her voice caught momentarily. “Or survived.”

“Well, we may have a problem, there,” said Vandro. “Little did I know our boy Schwartz could do this kind of defensive magic; soon as we saw that tower go up, Wilberforce activated the shield charms on my carriage.”

“Whoah, wait, what?” Schwartz turned to frown at him. “You can’t shield a moving carriage—how’d you get around the magical interference?”

“That’s just the point, son,” Vandro said, grimacing. “I didn’t. Turning that on fried the wheel enchantments.” He patted the carriage’s abused fender. “I’m afraid this old girl isn’t going anywhere else tonight.”

Grip sighed, flicking a glance across the whole group as the lot of them finally piled out of the carriages. “Well, staying here isn’t a prospect. We’re sitting ducks in a snowstorm. Stay together and head for the treeline, the forest will hamper pursuit.”

“What if we went into the fortress?” Layla suggested.

Darius sighed. “The forest it is…”

“Oh, hush,” she said crossly. “It’s not as if they’ll expect that, and it can’t be as dangerous as who knows how many armed dwarves!”

“Too late,” Glory murmured.

The others followed her line of sight and turned to face it at varying speeds, Jasmine and the senior Eserites fastest. A line of squat figures had appeared in the darkness just ahead; thanks to the still-falling snow, they were nearly upon them before being visible, the crunch of multiple sets of feet not audible until the last moment thanks to the wind across the open space and the sound of fire raging not too far away in the ruins.

By the time they were close enough to be seen clearly, it was apparent that more than half were carrying wands.

One figure near the middle removed his hat and casually tossed it to the snow behind him with one hand, clutching a wand with the other. The face thus revealed was familiar to several of them.

“Quite the exciting evening,” Rogrind said flatly. A hint of the jovial politeness he had always displayed to them remained, though it was a clearly strained veneer over simmering anger, now. “You know something, I do believe my greatest regret about all this is that I won’t have time to sit you ruffians down and make you understand just how much harm you have caused over the course of these events. Well, second greatest. You’ve manage to kill some good people tonight.”

“The harm we caused,” Tallie snapped, “by refusing to roll over like—”

“Young lady,” the dwarf growled, “shut up. You were seen bringing several of the modified staves which started all this idiocy into those vehicles. Despite everything, I am willing to offer you terms: hand them over, and we will leave without doing any further harm to anyone, because we are still—still!—the civilized parties here.”

Grip slowly panned her gaze across the assembled dwarves, then caught Jasmine’s eye and tilted her head at them significantly. There were fifteen present, all garbed in inconspicuous winter attire, an even mix of men and women. Eight had wands pointed at the party. Jasmine nodded once in acknowledgment of Grip’s point: only four had the same calm, alert aspect as Rogrind. The rest were visibly nervous, uncertain, in at least two cases seriously frightened by all this. Civilians, somehow drafted into his campaign. Dwarven sturdiness or not, this was an army that would break at the first sign of significant threat.

Wands shifted as Schwartz made a sudden gesture with his hands.

“Stop!” Rogrind barked, too late.

Whatever he released spread outward from him like ripples in a pond, causing luminous butterflies of multiple colors to appear in the air around them, as well as illusory stalks of greenery popping up through the snow and an incongruous scent like sun-baked grass and flowers in the summer.

One panicked dwarf fired her wand at Schwartz, followed by another. No one else tried, as both weapons sparked ineffectually, the first actually igniting its owner’s sleeve and causing her to drop it with a shriek and tumble over, burying her arm in the snow.

“Those of you with wands, don’t fire them,” Schwartz said aside to his companions before turning his gaze fully on Rogrind. “I see you didn’t take our little discussion to heart. I’m afraid I was quite serious.”

Meesie leaped down from his shoulder of her own volition, actually vanishing deep into the snow and leaving a rat-shaped hole in it. An instant later, snow was hurled everywhere as she burst up into her much larger form, shook her mane, and roared.

Three more dwarves tried to shoot her; all ended up dropping suddenly-hot wands that wouldn’t fire, one also having to roll in the snow to put himself out.

“Good boy,” Grip said, stepping forward with a truly unhinged grin. She had somehow slipped on two sets of iron knuckles and produced a brass-studded club the length of her forearm from one of her pockets. Jasmine paced forward in unison, both Butlers positioned themselves pointedly in front of the group, and Meesie crouched, wriggling her hindquarters in a clear gesture of imminent feline attack.

Two of the dwarves turned and ran; most of the rest shuffled backward, looking around in alarm, and incidentally placing the hardened professionals among them on the front lines.

“Have it your way,” said Rogrind with a clear note of belligerent satisfaction.

As the two fronts collided, there came a sharp retort like a small explosion nearby, and Meesie howled in pain, vanishing from her lion form instantly. That was as much time as Jasmine had to notice the others before Grip was fully occupied dealing with two hard-eyed dwarves, and she found herself face-to-face with Rogrind himself.

He suffered one slash from her sword across his chest, and she realized her misjudgment a moment too late. First, he had some kind of armor under his coat, and second, he was good at personal combat. Stepping into her swing as it raked him, he positioned himself perfectly and slammed his fist into her ribs just under her sword arm. She managed not to drop the blade, but he hit like a mule’s kick; she staggered sideways, gasping for breath and in pain. Years of training and her innate agility kept her from losing her footing entirely, even in the snow, but Rogrind continued to defy the stolid dwarven stereotype. He pressed her, striking bare-handed; she gained a few feet of breathing room by dodging to one side and stabbing him in the upper arm. He bared his teeth in pain, his left arm suddenly bleeding profusely and hanging useless, but was too disciplined to let it stop him.

Despite the past few seconds’ education in his surprising level of combat ability, she was still unprepared for his speed. He bulled forward as swiftly as a pouncing cat, using his weight and lower center of gravity to tackle her bodily around the midsection and bear her to the ground. Jasmine twisted, trying to bring her blade back into play, but he caught her wrist. It was with his injured arm, but thanks to the famous dwarven sturdiness, he had strength enough to keep her pinned down. She clawed at his eye with her other hand, but he turned his head aside even as he slipped a stiletto from his sleeve, and a moment later she had to grasp his descending wrist to protect her throat.

That close, in a wrestling match, he was considerably stronger than she. Her arm strained to hold it off, but the blade descended inexorably.

She gritted her teeth and reached for the light inside her. There was a time to break cover, after all.

“IYAAAAIII!”

Rogrind jerked his head up, then released her and tried to stumble back, not quite fast enough. The lance that flashed down at him nailed him directly in the shoulder. It didn’t penetrate deeply enough to stick, falling out as he continued to reel backward, but left him gushing blood and with two injured arms.

A second later, Principia’s boots sank into the snow on either side of Jasmine’s head, the elf landing protectively over her from what had to have been a long leap. She surged forward, drawing her short sword and slamming her shield against Rogrind. He was too heavy for the slender elf to physically force back, but she was a whirling storm in Legion armor, pounding with her shield, jabbing and slashing with the blade, and he had no choice but to retreat after his only counterattack, an attempt to grab her shield, ended with a stab through the forearm that put his right arm fully out of commission.

More boots crunched in the snow, and then Squad One was surging past her, forming themselves into a phalanx with their sergeant at the tip. She still didn’t have her lance, but held her blade at the ready.

“Right face, shield wall!” Principia barked, and they seamlessly formed up, allowing Rogrind to scuttle away in the snow and shifting their arrowhead formation to a solid line of shields, bristling with lances, and facing the rest of the dwarves. At this development, the two who were harrying Grip also released her, backing away.

“Wait!” Rogrind said, weakly holding up his left hand, the only one he still could. “Wait! We have no argument with—”

“CHARGE!” Principia roared, and the squad raced forward.

That was too much for most of the remaining dwarven conscripts, who scattered in all directions, leaving only the few who were engaged in melee with the other Eserite apprentices, none of whom appeared to be very effective. Jasmine rapidly assessed the battlefield and bit back a curse; the Butlers, easily their best physical asset, were hovering protectively over their charges rather than contributing on the front lines. Meanwhile, golden shields of light had flashed into being around the dwarves still standing their ground.

An instant later those shields vanished, prompting exclamations of surprise. Glory and Rasha were leaning out the door of her carriage, each with a disruptor still aimed.

Six armored women collided with seven dwarves, who would have proved heavy and braced enough to break their charge completely, had they not been running spears-first. Four of the dwarves went down, so thoroughly impaled that in falling they wrenched the weapons from their owners’ grip. The rest reeled backward in disarray.

Rogrind, though, had found a moment to reach into his coat with his weakened left hand. Jasmine could make no sense of the small object he withdrew and held out, but an instant later it produced a puff of smoke, a flash, and an explosive crack just like the one which had sounded before Meesie was felled.

Merry Lang screamed as she was flung backward out of formation, spinning around to land on her side in the snow.

“Not. Another. Step,” Rogrind snarled, twisting to point his mysterious device at Principia.

Another crack sounded, this one a familiar wandshot.

More dwarves, nearly a dozen, paced forward out of the swirling snow, grim-faced and armed. They came from the direction of the road, and several were clearly injured or with disheveled clothing, as if they had limped away from wrecked carriages.

“Where do they keep coming from?” Schwartz muttered, Meesie again perched on his shoulder. He held a fireball in his right palm, balanced to throw.

“I have had enough of this,” Rogrind panted, turning to the others. “You may fire at—”

A blast of wind hurled a wall of snow over him and directly into the faces of the newly arrive dwarves. Two more wands were discharged; the bolts flew wide of the Eserites, though several of them dived to the ground anyway.

Suddenly, as if the wind had been a signal, it stopped snowing. In the absence of the thick fall of flakes, a line of six people were visible, approaching the group from the north. On the left end of their formation was Kuriwa, just now lowering her arms after calming the storm.

In the center, sword in hand, behind a glowing shield of gold, stood Basra Syrinx.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a satisfied little smirk, “I believe you can discern friend from foe? We do not require prisoners. Destroy them.”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” drawled the man on the opposite end of the line from Kuriwa, an older gentleman of Western descent carrying a mage’s staff and smoking a cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But I do believe the Sisterhood’s doctrine of war requires a clearly overmatched enemy be offered the chance to surrender?”

Basra gave him an irritated look past Joe, who stood next to her, but nodded. “Yes, in fact I believe you are correct. Very well. Your attention, miscellaneous dwarven rabble! I am Bishop Syrinx, of the Sisterhood of Avei and the Universal Church. With me are my very good friends the Sarasio Kid, Tinker Billie, Gravestone Weaver, Longshot McGraw and Mary the Crow. Ah, good, I see you understand what those names mean.”

The dwaves, indeed, had whirled to direct their aim at Syrinx’s reinforcements, now completely ignoring the Eserites, and even the cold-eyed professionals among them were visibly alarmed. One of their few remaining conscripts appeared to be weeping softly.

“If you do not instantly drop your weapons and surrender,” Basra continued pleasantly, “you will be scoured off the face of the earth with both efficiency and relish. And if, by some unthinkable miracle, you insist upon a firefight and manage to win, be assured that my goddess’s attention is fixed upon these events, and you are meddling in matters you do not understand.” Her eyes flicked rapidly from Principia to Jasmine and then back to Rogrind.

Nandi and Ephanie were both kneeling in the snow beside Merry, who was alive and monotonously cursing despite the crimson stain spreading through the snow around her. Principia had eased backward out of the remains of Squad One’s formation to hover near Jasmine.

“Win here,” Basra said, her voice suddenly as icy as the night air, “and there will be nowhere for you to hide. You may be able to bamboozle Imperial Intelligence, but you are not a match for Avei. If those weapons are not on the ground in the next five seconds, everyone dies.”

“How the hell,” Tallie hissed at Jasmine, “do you know all these people?!”

Jasmine shook her head. “I only know Joe. Guess we should be glad he has friends, too.”

“They…are not surrendering,” Darius muttered.

“Well, this is altogether unfortunate,” Rogrind said with a sigh.

“They’re government intelligence on a sanctioned op,” Grip whispered. “Shit. They can’t be taken alive. Everybody down!”

She was right; the dwarves, in unison, raised their weapons again. Joe, Billie, and Weaver did likewise.

And then the whole earth shook.

He dived down so rapidly they didn’t even hear the wind of his approach until he struck the ground hard enough to knock several of them right off their feet. The whole assemblage turned in unison, gaping in awe up at the enormous blue dragon suddenly standing a bare few yards away from them.

He swiveled his long neck around to lower his angular head directly into their midst, and bared rows of arm-sized teeth in a truly horrifying smile.

“Good evening. Nice night for it, eh?”

“By the way,” Principia said to Jasmine, “in addition to not positioning my squad in that fortress where Syrinx knew we were supposed to be, I took the liberty of calling in some additional reinforcements of my own. I apologize if this disrupts your plans.”

“Ah!” At her voice, the dragon twisted his head around to face her from a few feet away. “Prin, there you are! I must say, you throw the most terrible parties. Why is it, cousin, I only ever see you when people are getting shot in all directions?”

“C-cousin?” Jasmine’s voice jumped an octave in the course of one word and then cracked.

The dragon turned his sapphire eyes on her. “Hmph. That sounded like an exclamation of surprise. Been keeping me a secret, Principia? A less charitable person might think you were embarrassed to be related to me.”

“Well,” Principia said glibly, “I guess a less charitable person might have met you. How is she?” she added, turning away from the dragon.

“I have rarely seen anything like this injury,” Kuriwa replied. Somehow, in the intervening seconds, she had moved from across the battlefield to Merry’s side, and now paused in working on the fallen Legionnaire. “It is not excessively difficult to heal, however. Here. This was lodged in her arm.” She handed a tiny object to Principia, then lifted her head to smile at the dragon. “And hello, Zanzayed. It is a great pleasure to see you again.”

The dragon shifted to stare ominously at her. “Oh. You.”

“Since we are both in the vicinity,” she said calmly, returning her attention to Merry, “I hope you will find time to catch up. We so rarely get to talk anymore.”

He snorted, sending a blast of air over them that was hot enough to make the snow steam and smelled of brimstone and, incongruously, spearmint.

“Well,” Zanzayed huffed, “this has been fun, and all, but I’m just the transportation, here.”

He lowered his body to lie in the snow, revealing for the first time a man in a dark suit perched astride his neck, who had been hidden by the dragon’s wings. Now, he slung his leg over and slid to the ground, where he paused to straighten his coat.

“Uh oh,” Principia muttered, her eyes widening. “I didn’t order that.”

“Good evening,” said Zanzayed’s passenger, striding forward. “I am Lord Quentin Vex, head of Imperial Intelligence. With regard to this matter, I speak for the Emperor.”

He paused to sweep an expressive gaze around them, at the dwarves, the Eserites, the Legionnaires and the adventurers, all of whom had gone silent and still, staring back in alarm.

“His Majesty,” said Vex, raising an eyebrow, “requires a god damned explanation.”

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11 – 39

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The carriage attempting to flank them on the left suddenly skidded, veering back and forth as its driver fought for control. There had been no sign of magic used that was visible from within the passenger compartment of Glory’s vehicle, but Schwartz had told them that with so much snow already in the air, manipulating ice to deprive their pursuers of traction would be one of the easiest spells available to him. He was probably responsible for the sliding of that carriage, since he apparently did nothing to prevent the other one from pulling up almost even with them.

Rasha had snatched up one of the wands Glory had distributed and now pushed open the window, stuck it out and fired.

The lightning bolt flew wide, sparking against a tree trunk in passing, but the pursuers fell back slightly, rather than try their luck against random wandshots. The Eserites didn’t have a better angle of fire without opening the doors to lean out, the rear window being fully attached to the frame. Rasha jerked back in, leaving the window opening and ignoring both the snowflakes and icy wind which blew in and Layla’s shriek of protest at them.

“Here,” Glory said in the momentary lull, tugging a piece of the seat beside her. A section of it slid partly forward, exposing a hidden compartment, into which she reached to pull out a gold-hilted Avenic short sword in a glossy leather sheath. She handed this to Jasmine. “Best to be prepared.”

“What in the world is she going to do with that?” Layla screeched. “Has everyone forgotten what century it is?”

“Not much use right now,” Jasmine allowed, “but the plan is to engage them on foot at the end of this.”

“She can do more damage with that blade than you can with a wand,” Glory added.

“Hold on!” Rasha shouted.

The carriage at which he’d fired approached again, this time almost directly from behind, cutting off the view of the truck bringing up the rear; the angle kept it out of the way of wandfire from their windows. All four of them looked back at Rasha’s shout, then braced themselves barely in time to keep their seats as the pursuing vehicle slammed into their back right fender.

The carriage rocked, but Smythe kept it on course, quickly adjusting out of the resulting skid and then accelerating until they were very nearly tailgating Vandro’s carriage up ahead. The dwarves’ vehicle did not fare so well from its attack; it swerved and barely kept from sliding off into the trees, forced to drastically reduce speed to regain control and compelling its own allies to quickly maneuver out of the way. It had lost one front lamp in the impact.

“Falconer traction charms really do beat Dawnco,” Jasmine muttered, still gripping the bench. “I know someone who’ll be smug…”

In the meantime, the carriage first deflected by Schwartz had recovered its traction and was coming up again; Rasha and Glory both shifted to the opposite side, ready to lean out the windows with wands. The window next to the driver’s seat on the oncoming carriage opened as well, and a bearded dwarf leaned partially out, aiming a wand of his own at them.

“Get down!” Jasmine shouted.

Before they could, however, a tiny streak of red struck the dwarf directly in the beard, and while he flailed, bounced into the driver’s compartment of his vehicle.

An instant later, the compartment was literally full of a huge, glowing cat.

Meesie’s roar was audible to them even over the road noise; her sheer bulk popped open both doors on the vehicle’s driver bench. The driver kept his seat, barely, though his passenger was flung out into the road, and immediately run over by the pursuing truck, which rocked alarmingly but did not capsize or lose significant traction. Meanwhile, the carriage with Meesie in it now lit up a fierce gold as multiple occupants channeled huge amount of divine magic. It had the desired effect; the elemental vanished with a bellowing yowl of protest, but that was an empty victory. The carriage itself veered entirely off the road even as she disappeared, spinning about ninety degrees and toppling over on its side, where it continued to skid on the snow until its front fender smashed against a tree.

“One down,” Glory said with grim satisfaction.

“Oh, no.” Layla pressed both hands to her mouth; in the brief time between Schwartz’s arrival at the townhouse and their departure, she had been immensely taken with the tiny elemental. “Oh, poor Meesie.”

“She’s fine,” said Jasmine. “According to Schwartz, if damaged enough to disappear she’ll just come back to—look out!”

The other carriage had pulled forward again; this time, one of its passenger doors swung wide open, and out leaned a dwarf clearly being held by another inside the compartment, considering he had both hands occupied aiming a battlestaff at them.

All four hurled themselves to the floor as lightning flashed past outside.

More bursts of white light flickered through their windows, accompanied by the crack of thunderbolts and the deeper retorts of trees being struck by the discharges, but nothing hit their carriage. After a few more seconds of this, Jasmine warily crawled up onto the back seat to peak out the window.

“He’s missing,” she reported.

“Well, obviously,” Layla said scathingly. “Why is he missing? Did they designate their only blind confederate as the trigger man?”

“The lightning bolts are being diverted away!” Jasmine replied, grinning.

“Bless that witch,” Glory said fervently, lifting herself back into the seat and retrieving her wand, which she had dropped in her lunge to the floor.

“Yeah,” Rasha agreed, peeking warily out beside Jasmine. “The question is, how long can he keep that up?”

Suddenly their carriage shook under the thump of something impacting the roof, and swerved momentarily before Smythe got it back under control.

“And what the blazes was that?” Layla cried.


Perched precariously atop Vandro’s speeding carriage with one hand clutching the edge of the roof and the other holding to her staff, Tallie watched the confrontation behind them with a lot more worry for her friends in the line if fire than her own very immediate prospects of falling to a particularly ugly demise. Heights and unstable footing were downright comfortingly familiar to her. Granted, speeding down a dark highway in a snowstorm was new, but hey, you had to shake up the act now and again or the punters got bored.

She grinned savagely as the first pursuing carriage went down. In the next moment, though, she reflexively ducked, nearly losing her footing, as lightning began to flash around to the side. It kept shooting off to the left of Glory’s carriage, and it took only a moment’s study for her to understand what must be happening. She could see Schwartz, silhouetted in the glare of the truck’s powerful lights, standing upright somehow despite the snow, wind, and motion of the carriage. He was also holding one hand forward toward their pursuers.

Tallie didn’t know a thing about witchcraft, but she knew how exhausting anything that demanded concentration and physical stamina could get. And she knew what would happen when Schwartz’s energy flagged. How far were they from the point Glory had suggested?

The gap between their vehicles had narrowed when Smythe pressed forward to gain room, but now Wilberforce began to accelerate, pushing Vandro’s carriage to a truly dangerous speed in order to create space between them again. The gap began widening, and Tallie came to an abrupt decision.

She didn’t bother trying to get a running start; she could never have kept her balance doing that under these conditions. Instead she slid her body forward, planted one foot against the rear edge of the roof, and kicked off as powerfully as she could without sacrificing her footing.

The moment of arcing through the snowy air above the highway was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating of her life.

She had misjudged the jump slightly—forgivable, under the circumstances—and slipped upon landing, coming down on her knees instead of her feet. The pain was sharp and bright, and Tallie ignored it completely, being fully occupied with losing neither her staff nor herself over the side. Throwing her body flat, she managed to grasp one edge of the carriage’s roof, dig one toe in against the ornate molding lining it (bless Glory’s extravagant tastes), and stop her horrifying slide over the edge. For a moment she clung there, one foot hanging over the windscreen probably right in front of Smythe, before rallying and pulling herself back up to kneel. This position put more pressure on her already-traumatized knees, which she continued to ignore.

Tallie looked up in time to spot Schwartz glancing back at her; he quickly returned his attention to their pursuit, but at least that mean she could speak to him without accidentally frightening him off the roof. He struck her as being of a generally nervous disposition—or at least, had before she saw this performance.

“I thought you couldn’t use an energy shield on an enchanted carriage!” she shouted over the wind.

“Arcane shields, no,” he replied, strain evident in his voice. “Not shielding, anyway, redirecting. Lightning is practically natural, easy to do with my craft… If they’ve got a proper enchanter wand in there, we’re in serious—”

He broke off suddenly, falling to his own knees and holding out his other hand. Only when another barrage of lightning bolts went flashing harmlessly off to the opposite side of the carriage did she realize that their pursuer’s opposite door had opened and another dwarf was attacking them with a wand.

Meesie, who had been too small to be visible from Vandro’s carriage ahead, squealed furiously at Tallie, despite having to cling to Schwartz’s collar with all four paws to avoid being blown away.

“Now,” Schwartz snarled, “would be…a good…time!”

Tallie was already bringing up her staff; she had to creep forward till she was next to him and take aim from right under his arm to avoid the very real prospect of blasting him point-blank, given the way their perch was rocking.

She had never fired a staff before; she’d fired a crossbow, though. This had much less recoil, which seemed ironic.

Tallie wasn’t a great shot, but she managed to rake the side of the carriage, causing the dwarf with the wand to fall out with an audible cry. The carriage itself bucked from the impact, its upper left edge a scorched ruin and actually on fire in a couple of places, but the driver regained control and kept on after having to sacrifice a few yards of proximity. That was still easily within staff range.

Given that only one side in that firefight had any defensive measures, that pretty much decided the matter.

The barrage coming at them from the dwarf’s staff intensified so much that the weapon had to be in immediate danger of overheating; clearly their foe could analyze the tactical reality just as well. Tallie’s second shot punched right through the windscreen, though not on the side where the driver perched. She had been aiming for the driver’s seat, but these were hardly optimal shooting conditions. Her next shot at the driver didn’t hit him, either; their carriage bumped right as she fired, causing both herself and Schwartz to slide terrifyingly backward, and her staff jerked straight down as she fought for balance.

However, that meant the shot blasted one of their pursuer’s front wheels clean off.

The carriage crumpled forward onto itself like a horse with a broken leg, its fender plowing into the highway and causing its back end to reel upward. Too close to avoid it, the following truck plowed right into its ally, the driver managing to swerve only just enough to make the collision relatively indirect. It finished the work of smashing the vehicle, though, and knocking it fully off the road.

The truck came on, now missing one of its brilliant running lamps, but apparently undeterred.

“Nice shot,” Schwartz said breathlessly. Meesie squeaked and nodded.

Tallie grinned at him, not about to argue despite that shot being a complete accident. “Not so bad yourself. Hang tight, though, we’re not nearly out of this yet.”


“I say, is this ominous?” Layla asked nervously, peering through the rear window at the sole remaining lamp of the truck following them. “I mean, it seems odd that we’re doing so well. We are outnumbered, and I learned long ago to be suspicious of anything that seems to be going like a bard’s story.”

“A rider is only as good as his mount,” Glory replied calmly. “Those are cheap, mass-produced vehicles acquired locally for the sake of anonymity. Our carriages were the absolute top of the line even before Webs and I commissioned our various personal enhancements, and both are being driven by Butlers. No, this is proceeding more or less as I expected. The real test will come once we’re off the road.”

A persistent chiming rapidly grew in volume and their carriage swerved to hug the right edge of the road, following Vandro’s ahead, and followed a moment later by the truck behind. Another vehicle shot past them on their left—actually moving far slower than they, but quickly lost behind due to their speed, along with the sound of its driver frantically yanking his alarm bell in panic.

“That’s an important reminder,” Jasmine said grimly. “Storm or no storm, this is a public highway scarcely a stone’s throw from the Imperial capital. It’s amazing there’s not more traffic.”

“What do you want to bet that guy goes right to the nearest police with this story?” Rasha asked. “I mean, even if he couldn’t see the damage to these carriages, he’s about to pass two wrecked ones that have obviously been shot, and probably bodies in the road.”

“All according to plan,” Glory said soothingly, patting Rasha’s shoulder. “Official vehicles will be out soon anyway; this storm came on quickly, but they try to keep up a presence in dangerous weather in case anyone needs help. Secrecy is more than we can hope for. Remember, getting the Empire involved will be to our benefit. It’s the dwarves who attacked first.”

“Which means,” Jasmine reminded them, “they have an urgent need to stop us before the Imperials catch up.”

“It’s that thing I want to know about,” Glory murmured, staring back at the truck through narrowed eyes. “Those little Dawnco rigs didn’t last long, which was no surprise. That one, though… What have they got in there?”


“Why are we slowing—oh.”

Schwartz turned to face forward as the carriages decelerated. Up ahead, lights rose through the gloom, and after only moments longer the forest fell away to both sides.

Imperial foresters kept the immediate surroundings of Tiraas as pristine and natural as possible, a policy established by Emperor Sarsamon, the founder of the Tirasian Dynasty, but this forest was scarcely a century old. Before that, Tiraan Province had been thoroughly settled farming country, but during the Enchanter Wars battles had torn up the landscape, and in the lawless and tax free years which followed, much of the land had been despoiled by opportunistic companies, strip-mining and mass-logging until the once-proud capital stood surrounded by a virtual wasteland. Tirasian conservation efforts or no, however, this was still a populated region; the cities of Tiraas, Anteraas and Madouris stood quite close together, and there were numerous smaller towns and villages in the vicinity. The highway now passed straight through one.

Here, even more than in the capital, people had retreated inside to escape the cold, dark, and the rapidly thickening blanket of snow which had piled nearly a foot deep in only a few hours. It was far from deserted, however. Lights blazed from many windows, and as the quality of the highway’s paving improved with its transition to village main street, regularly spaced lamp posts appeared lining the way.

Two people were trudging along the snow-buried sidewalk, heads down and hands jammed in coat pockets; they ignored the short convoy of enchanted carriages which now passed through the town, having decelerated to a speed that would not garner attention. Another man stood on the corner of a cross-street, however, smoking a cigarette. Or at least he had been; it was blown from his fingers into the slush-filled gutter by an errant gust of wind, which he appeared not to notice, being occupied staring at their procession.

The two lead carriages were both clearly expensive, though Vandro’s also bore the significant scars of its rough treatment back in Tiraas. The hulking delivery truck bringing up the rear had also taken a beating, its front fender totally smashed by the recent impact with the wrecked Dawnco sedan, the lamp on that side torn clean off. Only Glory’s carriage bore no signs of damage. It did, however, have Schwartz and Tallie sitting on the roof, in the snow, he with a cheerfully burning little elemental on his shoulder, she clutching a battlestaff.

In the light of the village’s street lamps, they could, for the first time, see the dwarf ensconced in the truck’s driver seat. He tipped his hat politely to the staring man as they passed.

“We could make a fuss,” Tallie said quietly. “There must be police close to here, either Imperial or House Madouri. Tell ’em what’s been going on…”

“Glory picked out a destination for the ambush,” Schwartz replied quietly. “Jasmine has a plan, and anyway, we’ve got allies waiting for us who will be left high and dry if we don’t show. At least one is a friend of mine. Besides,” he added, directing a scowl at the truck behind, “I think Jasmine’s plans can be trusted, as a general rule.”

Catching his look, the dwarf driving the truck smiled and waved at him. Tallie calmly made a crude gesture in reply.

“Did you know Jasmine before we all wound up in that jail?” she asked him.

Schwartz grinned in spite of himself. “Well, I mean, sure. We were all in that warehouse before we were in jail.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped.

“Yes, I do,” he said more soberly, not meeting her eyes. “And no…I didn’t.”

“Mm.” Tallie studied him critically, the light fading around them; they were already moving toward the opposite fringe of the village. “And yet, you know something about her that I don’t?”

Schwartz glanced at her, then shifted uncomfortably. Meesie turned to give Tallie a look, pointed one paw at her and squeaked a warning.

“Mm hm,” Tallie said smugly. “Ah, well, people keep reminding me others are entitled to their secrets.”

“It’s probably significant if people have to keep reminding you of that,” Schwartz said pointedly.

“Let’s table this for later,” she suggested. “Sound like it’ll be a fun argument, and right now I just don’t think we can spare it the attention it deserves.”

Up ahead, Wilberforce signaled the end of their reprieve by pouring power into the wheels, his carriage blazing off into the darkness. Smythe kept Glory’s smoothly right behind it, and for a few moments they started to leave their pursuer in their wake. After dropping back until the truck’s remaining lamp was almost a pinprick, though, it began rapidly swelling again. The truck could not match a Falconer carriage for acceleration, but even with the best available traction charms and Butler drivers, everyone’s top speed was limited by what they could safely do in the snow and the darkness. In only another minute, the truck was once again bearing down on them.

Now, however, the vehicle emitted a sudden bang, and the flat roof of its cargo compartment—which made up the majority of its size—suddenly shot into the air, falling to the road behind them.

“Oh, what the hell now,” Tallie groaned. “Look at the size of that thing—they could have a mag cannon in there!”

“You can’t put magical artillery on top of anything running on wheel enchantments, either,” Schwartz said pedantically even as he stared at the truck. There was definitely some kind of mechanism in it; groaning and clacking noises were emerging, loud enough to be clear despite the wind blasting past them. “Mag cannons work by channeling a burst of otherwise standard wandfire through two tiny dimensional portals affixed back to back, which exponentially increases the power using the ambient energy that causes the universe itself to function. Most of a mag cannon’s bulk is the charmed apparatus that safely contains those spells, and even so, unstable portals mess up all kinds of other charms, especially anything designed to be specifically mobile and adaptive. Believe me, the military would love…

“Why in hell’s name does he think I care about this?” Tallie muttered to herself, taking aim with her staff. Meesie glanced over at her and shook her tiny head.

This time, her shot was true and struck the target head-on, but this time, it accomplished virtually nothing. Lightning veered off course, arcing over and into the open back of the truck.

“What the fuck?!” she screeched.

“I say, how clever!” Schwartz exclaimed.

“I thought you said you can’t shield an enchanted carriage!”

“You can’t, the innate wear on shields increases hugely at the speed carriages travel, and more importantly the necessary phasing to allow airflow catastrophically disrupts wheel enchantments—” He noticed her glare and broke off, wincing. “Ah, yes, but anyway, that’s not shielded, it’s got a lightning rod!”

“What the f—I thought those have to be grounded!”

“They do!” Schwartz said enthusiastically. “Which means it’s being redirected into some kind of power storage unit inside the vehicle! If I could only get to it, I could easily overload the thing—”

They both had to drop down and hold on for dear life as the highway went into a wide curve; despite Smythe’s obvious skill at the control runes, the carriage skidded, only righting itself properly once the road straightened out again an interminable few seconds later. At least the same disruption put a temporary halt to whatever was going on in the back of the truck, though the loud ticking and grinding resumed almost immediately.

“Then you’d be in there when it blew,” Tallie pointed out when she felt she could spare the attention for talking.

“Hmm.” Schwartz scowled back at the truck. “I bet I could get Meesie into there, but with no way of knowing exactly what she’d find, it’s impossible to give her the right tools or instructions. She’s not a very adaptive oh come on, are you kidding me?!”

The machinery finally revealed itself, a huge apparatus rising up above the truck’s driver compartment, its wide arms snapping outward and locking into place. It truly was an ingenious piece of engineering, and altogether remarkable that the dwarves had such a thing on hand. Of course, as military hardware went, the thing was so outdated the Imperial Army would have scoffed at it, but in their present situation, there could be no doubt what the ballista would do to their carriage at that range.

A bolt almost as long as Schwartz was tall was already locked into place; the pointed end aiming at them had been machined in a spiraling pattern like the head of a screw.

Tallie fired her staff right at it, with exactly the same disappointing result as before.

Schwartz, however, stood upright and held his hand aloft; after a second’s concentration, a ball of fire burst alight in his palm. Before the ballista could fire, he hurled it directly at the front of the truck.

The fireball missed the driver compartment, but impacted the truck directly on the flat wall behind it. Like nearly all carriages, the truck’s body was made of wood, and whatever lightning-deflecting apparatus it possessed did nothing at all against fire.

The truck’s frame caught as if soaked in oil; clearly Schwartz’s weaponized fireballs were packing more than just fire. Blazing merrily and spewing smoke, the truck kept after them without so much as slowing. And the entirely metal structure of the ballista itself was visible through the flame, still aimed right at them.

Another loud cranking noise sounded from within.

“Dodge!” Tallie screamed at the top of her lungs, throwing herself flat and pounding a foot on the roof of the carriage. “DODGE!”

The sound the ballista made was oddly melodic, though far too deep and powerful to be rightly called a twang.

Smythe got the message; the carriage abruptly swerved as widely as the space of the highway would allow.

Tallie felt the wind of the massive projectile whip past her. If she had not lain flat and if Smythe hadn’t adjusted their course, it would have gone right through her body. The bastards were either worse shots than she, or weren’t even aiming at the carriage.

There came a crash from ahead, followed by the screaming of braking wheels on the highway, and she turned her head to look, horrified by what she might see.

Vandro’s carriage was not a loss, however. The ballista bolt had grazed it, ripping off a chunk of its roof, but Wilberforce fought it back into a steady course even as she watched. Smythe had to decelerate sharply to avoid plowing into his rear fenders, causing Tallie and Schwartz to slide toward the front of their rooftop.

“All right, that is it!” Schwartz growled, and hurled Meesie at the truck.

She transformed in midair, plummeting to the road to land directly in front of it. The truck did not slow.

Its front bumper, what remained of it, crumpled completely upon impact with the huge cat; the truck rode high enough off the ground that she was swept beneath it rather than smashing directly through its body. However, in that form, Meesie was too big for its wheels to simply roll over.

The entire truck bucked off the highway, veered, skidded, and flew into a spin. As their carriages accelerated away, their pursuer was traveling completely sideways when it finally toppled over, smashing the intricate collapsible ballista protruding from its bed, still burning fiercely.

Tallie’s scream of triumph managed to compress a surprising number of obscenities into only a few seconds. In the middle of it, Meesie popped back into existence on Schwartz’s shoulder, herself emitting a shrill tirade that sounded unmistakably of cursing despite containing no words.

“Look!” Schwartz shouted, pointing ahead of them. The forest opened up to reveal a broad field; Wilberforce and then Smythe slowed their respective vehicles, turning through a gate which lead into the middle of it. If there was a road, it was completely buried under the snow. Up ahead, there loomed the landmark Glory had pointed out to Jasmine as the ideal ambush point: an old fortification from the Enchanter Wars, abandoned but left there by the Imperial government as a reminder. Its crumbling battlements covered nearly an acre, with the round central structure rising five stories from its center almost wide enough to appear squat.

“We made it!” Schwartz crowed. “Principia and her squad are in there waiting for us!”

Before she could even reply, the night lit up like noon.

The size of the explosion was such that the century-old fortress dissolved entirely in a column of fire.

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11 – 38

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Behind Glory’s property stood a stable with a walled yard attached, its gated drive leading onto a little side street shared with her next door neighbor, opening onto the street proper. The stableyard was crowded to the point of bustling, now, as the entire household sorted themselves into the two enchanted carriages waiting at idle, their enchantments powered up to warm them before embarking. Both Glory and Vandro drove late-model Falconers, though hers was a smaller, sportier model without as much passenger space. Layla’s horses were carefully bedded down in warm stalls; though Glory herself did not keep animals, she maintained facilities for guests who did.

“Interesting girl, that one,” Vandro mused, watching Jasmine talking quietly with Schwartz and Glory by the door of the other carriage, the girl apparently showing them how to work one of those disruptor staves she’d brought back from the Temple of Avei along with her witch friend. “Got brains and muscle, but clearly isn’t the ringleader of this little pack. Doesn’t wanna put herself forward. No, I’d peg little Miss Tallie in that role—or she will be, when she grows into that bluster of hers. Frankly, those two are the only ones I mark as having a future in the Guild. The boys are sadly unremarkable.”

Wilberforce, sitting beside him on the carriage’s driver bench, cleared his throat softly, directing his face toward Grip, who lounged by the gates, watching him watch Jasmine. Vandro gave her a grin and a wave; she made no response to this, and after a moment pointedly turned her head away.

“I trust, sir,” the Butler said softly, “that you noted Miss Tallie’s remark about the Avenist Eserite mother.”

“Mmm.” Vandro took a swig from a silver hip flask, smiling to himself. “Now, we know damn well from our research that Keys doesn’t have a daughter—or at least, not one that she raised. That business with House Takhvaneh ’bout twenty years back, though… Everybody figured she nixed the pregnancy first chance, but Jasmine’s the right age, and I’d believe from her looks she’s a half-elf. Thrown away by her shiftless mother as a baby, just now trying to reconnect… Why, there’s just all kinds of ways for that to go badly, eh? Especially with the right encouragement.”

“Conversations between her friends have hinted at an Avenist upbringing,” Wilberforce noted. “A possible motivation for Locke to seek out the Sisterhood as she has.”

“I didn’t miss that either, old friend. Keys, it would seem, wants this a lot more than the girl does. How delightfully fraught with possibility.”

“There is also the fact,” Wilberforce added dryly, “on a less optimistic note, that you tend to get along poorly with Avenists.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right,” Vandro said with a sigh. “Well, hell, I’m not too old to make a few compromises. These kids are a lot more interesting than the momentary convenience I thought they were at first. We’ll have to work on cultivating ’em. Assuming, that is,” he added cheerfully, “we don’t all get murdered by dwarves tonight.”


“Hey, uh, Jasmine?”

She paused, having been about to climb into the carriage after making her farewells to Tallie, Ross, and Darius, who now strode up front to join Grip at Vandro’s carriage. The larger and more powerful of the two, it had been designated to carry more of the group. Schwartz was hovering by the rear fender of their own ride, looking nervous.

“Are you all right?” she asked, then winced. “Well, I mean, apart form the obvious. Believe me, there’s no shame in being apprehensive about something like this.”

He actually barked an incredulous little laugh, while Meesie squeaked reproachfully at her. “Oh, no, nothing like… Well, actually, I am quite nervous, that’s true. After Athan’Khar, though, this really isn’t so bad as all that.”

“Athan—wow.” Jasmine blinked. “You’ll really have to tell me that story someday.”

“Actually, I think I really will,” he replied, his expression growing grimmer. “That’s where I first met Bishop Syrinx…among other things. Look, that’s what I actually wanted to talk about, uh, Jasmine. I haven’t found a moment to grab your ear since the temple, and something about that Grip woman makes me think sharing possibly personal information in her hearing isn’t the best idea…”

“You’ve got good instincts,” she said with a sigh.

“It’s just…” Schwartz awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck. Meesie stood up to tug on his ear and point at Jasmine, squeaking encouragingly. “Well, frankly, I think you were a little too hard on Principia. She means well, and that thing with the Bishop… Well, trust me, she is fully entitled to feel hostile. I don’t think you quite appreciate just how…” He paused and swallowed heavily. “Just what Basra Syrinx is like.”

“I have some ideas in that direction, in fact,” Jasmine said quietly, nudging the carriage door fully shut. “That was the whole point of that, Schwartz.”

He blinked. “I, uh…how so?”

“Of the two of them, Syrinx is the one who worries me,” she said seriously. “Locke is…well, she has more than her share of faults, but I know pretty well what they are, and she’s not a danger except to people who deserve it. It was Syrinx I needed to land on to bring her in line. And if I’d done that while going easy on Locke, Syrinx would have made her pay for it later, when I wasn’t there to see. She would almost have to, given the way she thinks. I tried to put them on equal footing to protect Locke, and I’m trusting her to be clever enough to have picked up on that.”

“Oh.” He blinked again, twice. “Oh, I see. Well, um… I quite frankly would never have thought of that.”

Jasmine shook her head. “Neither would I, not so long ago. We really do need to have some longer conversations about this, Schwartz.”

“Right, yes,” he agreed. “But…clearly not tonight.”

She smiled, opening the carriage door. “We’ll just add that to our reasons to be certain to survive, eh?”

After she had climbed in and shut the door behind her, he shook his head and began clambering up to the top of the carriage. “Well, I thought I had plenty of those, but I suppose a bit more can’t hurt.”

Meesie ran a complete lap around the top of his head, chattering her agreement.


Night and the snowstorm had reduced the streets of Tiraas to a lamp-lit netherworld; even more windows than usual blazed with light, as if those within sought to fight back the cold by sheer volume of fairy lamps. Outside, however, the city was nearly desolate compared to its usual level of activity. Pedestrians were almost nonexistent, the few other carriages about moving slowly and cautiously in the snow. Twice on their way to the west gate, they passed carriages that had skidded off the road and collided with lamp posts, one having demolished a row of mailboxes in the process. In both cases, military police and the presumed owners of the vehicles were standing by them, competing to look more put out. Compared to the mess Tiraas usually faced in the winter, this storm was downright gentle; there was little wind and no ice, just thick snowflakes continually tumbling down. After hours of this, though, the snow was accumulating to a difficult depth.

“This could be trouble,” Glory murmured, shifting the curtain with one finger to study the passing scenery. “I expected more activity on the streets than this. If we are caught in an area where there is no one to see…”

“Tiraas is the heart of the Empire,” Jasmine said. “The Tiraan Empire is the predominant nation in the world. The center of human civilization never sleeps. And this city of all places is used to snow; everyone was just unprepared by the mild winter. It won’t be shut down that thoroughly. Look, there are people around, even if only a few, and the police are patrolling more than usual. As long as we don’t venture into side streets like they caught us in last time, it should be fine.”

“This is a main street, right?” Rasha asked nervously. “The one going right from Imperial Square to the west gate?”

“Yes, indeed,” said Glory with a smile. “If Tiraas is the Empire’s heart, this is one of its arteries. Jasmine is probably right; I just can’t help feeling a little nervous. I’m accustomed to sitting in the center of my web and letting the trouble come to me.”

“I am sorry to involve you in all this,” Jasmine said quietly.

“I’m not,” Glory replied without hesitation, absently squeezing Rasha’s shoulder. “This needs to be done, and anyway, I clearly needed to be shaken out of my routine. It’s a terrible sin for an Eserite to grow complacent.”

“They still back there?” Rasha asked tersely.

Jasmine, who was sitting on the front bench facing backward, nodded, her eyes flicking to the rear window. “Still keeping pace.”

“Uh oh,” Glory said suddenly, again looking past the curtain. Layla, Rasha, and Jasmine all crowded over to see.

Another carriage had suddenly pulled up out of an intersection and was keeping pace alongside them, not quite close enough to be menacing. Its driver’s bench had its windscreen and canvas top raised, but as they stared, one of its side windows swung open, revealing the face of a female dwarf, who gave them a pleasant smile and casually held up a wand.

Glory pulled back the curtain entirely, smiled back with equal politeness, and lifted her hand to deliver an obscene gesture. Rasha barely suppressed an outburst of nervous laughter.

“They’re too good to make a mistake like this,” Jasmine murmured. “If they didn’t ambush us before we got out of your neighborhood, they won’t here. We’re obviously making for the gates; much more opportunity outside the city.”

“Unless they know it’s a trap, of course,” said Layla. To the annoyance of virtually everyone, the young noblewoman seemed to find this whole affair to be splendid fun.

“And that’s where our current measures—ah, there we go,” Jasmine said in satisfaction as the current measures went into effect.

Up ahead, one of the doors of Vandro’s carriage had swung open, and Tallie leaped out, catching the lip of the roof with one hand and nimbly swinging herself up top, clearly not encumbered by the full-length battlestaff she carried. There, she dropped to a crouch, aimed the staff directly at the new carriage, and lit up behind a sphere of blue light which sparkled continuously as snowflakes pelted it.

Snow wasn’t as bad as rain, but a personal shielding charm wouldn’t hold up long in this weather. As the seconds passed, it became increasingly clear that what protected her was not an ordinary shielding charm.

Enchanted carriages could be outfitted with much larger and more potent power crystals than they needed, which then could be keyed to any number of enchanted devices carried within range of the carriage itself—such as energy shields. This was military gear, and while its use in civilian carriages was not a criminal offense, it definitely violated the enchanted vehicle safety codes, not to mention any insurance policies on the vehicle in question.

Quite coincidentally, both Vandro and Glory’s personal carriages had these devices installed and ready to run. The carriages themselves, unfortunately, could not be shielded, as for some reason that interfered with the enchantments powering their wheels; even Tallie’s bubble hovered closer to her than normal, to keep it out of range of any important systems it might damage.

Beside their own carriage, there suddenly paced a glowing red lion nearly as large as an ox. Meesie turned her maned head to growl at the dwarves, loud enough to be plainly audible in both vehicles even over the hum of their wheel charms and the sounds of slush being crushed beneath them. Though they couldn’t see it, Schwartz up top would be doing something to show off his magic, too.

The carriage immediately veered to put a lane’s worth of space between them, and fell back to drive parallel to its counterpart a few yards behind.

“Yeah, you’d better run,” Layla said, grinning.

Jasmine gave her a quelling look, which she appeared not to notice, before replying. “If they attack us now, where the police will intervene, we win—they set that up themselves by facing down the Guild the way they have. They’re not backing off because they’re afraid, Layla; they’re encouraging us to stand down our defenses and not attract the military police. No, this is how all cons are structured. You have to present the mark with the opportunity to put one over on you. We’ve made it plain we’re ready for a fight; they don’t know just how ready we are. They think we are riding into their trap, and once we do, we’ll spring ours.”

“And…just how many cons have you run?” Layla asked pointedly.

Jasmine grimaced. “Uh, this will be my first.”

“I see,” the aristocrat muttered. “Well, I suppose our lives are a sufficient stake. Doesn’t the Guild traditionally start apprentices off stealing, I don’t know, pocket change? Fruit from street vendors? Candy from babies?”

“It’s a good grift, regardless,” Glory said firmly. “No plan survives contact with reality, but we are well-prepared to improvise. That is the important thing.”

“I see the gates up ahead,” Rasha reported. “And Tallie’s shield is off again. Just the two carriages after us, still…”

“The gate guards may stop us,” Layla said, frowning.

Glory smiled. “The gate guards aren’t going to intervene as long as Meesie is back to mouse shape and Tallie isn’t showing off a shield that works better than it should in the snow. The sheer amount of traffic in and out of this city inevitably makes it impossible to scrutinize anyone too closely.”

“Traffic’s pretty light,” Rasha said, frowning nervously.

“But habits endure,” said Glory. “Anyway, if we are stopped, we have our cover story. Two wealthy dilettantes and their entourages repairing to our estates in Madouris after a most unsettling encounter with dwarven toughs. Shock, dismay, and so on. Still, I’m quite certain they won’t trouble us. Both these carriages are, if I say so myself, distinctive…”

“Wait, what about highway patrols?” Layla interrupted, watching the gates draw closer ahead. Traffic had, in fact, thickened, though that only meant there were four other carriages visible, none driving close enough together to force anyone to slow down in the snow. “Surely roads are heavily monitored this close to the capital…”

“Actually,” Glory said with a smile, “the capital itself is directly administered by the Silver Throne, but the lands outside it are part of Tiraan Province, governed by House Madouri. Among the new Duchess’s reforms has been the dismissal of most of her father’s rangers and public guardsmen, whose primary skill was taking bribes.”

“Oh, splendid,” Layla huffed, folding her arms. “Then we shall only meet bandits. Well, I’m sure we can handle those.”

“There are no bandits in Tiraan Province,” Glory said, now openly amused. “While the new Madouri guard corps is being trained to her more stringent standards, Duchess Ravana has made a standing contract with the Thieves’ Guild chapter in Madouris. Guild thieves who apprehend highwaymen will be compensated equally to the value of whatever was stolen, plus a bounty, and she prefers that the courts not be burdened with prosecuting such scoundrels when their heads will suffice to prove the cessation of their activities.”

“That,” Jasmine said with a grimace, “is just begging for the worst kind of abuse.”

“For a run-of-the-mill criminal cartel, perhaps,” Glory replied, shrugging placidly. “The Guild acts out of principle, however, and the Duchess has played to that perfectly. Boss Tricks has made it very clear that her offer is not to be abused in any way. Between that and Ravana making sure this arrangement is an open secret in the province, the highways around Tiraas are actually safer than under the old Duke’s administration.”

“She sounds quite the charmer,” Layla said, looking pointedly at Jasmine, who made no reply.

The gate guards did not even flag them to slow. Apparently, two luxury carriages (one with significant physical damage) with armed individuals sitting on top did not warrant closer inspection, a fact upon which Layla commented with some asperity as they eased carefully onto the bridge across the canyon.

“Well,” Glory said idly, “some of us have standing arrangements with gate guards, as I was trying to say earlier. Any Eserite who moves in circles of a certain class, really. I would be astonished if Webs weren’t fully paid up with the local constabulary. He does so love spending his money on bribes.”

“I guess if the dwarves really wanted to put us neatly out of the picture,” Rasha murmured, gazing out the window at the dizzying drop into blackness just beyond the bridge rails, “this would be the place.”

“Oh, what a lovely thought,” Layla exclaimed. “Really, thanks ever so.”

“You have to climb to get off the side of this bridge,” Jasmine said with a smile. “And those walls are more than sturdy enough to absorb collisions.”

“It ends up being tested more often than you’d think,” Glory added. “In fact, the Emperor is rumored to be drawing up legislation governing the use of enchanted carriages, requiring one to pass tests and obtain a license to drive.”

“That sounds like an entirely superfluous administrative burden,” Layla sniffed.

Beyond the bridge was another walled and gated town guarding the approach to Tiraas, and beyond that, the Imperial highway extending forward into snowy darkness. The road forked just beyond the outer gates, heading westward toward Viridill and north to Madouris. The provincial capital was a proverbial stone’s throw from Tiraas itself; each city was visible from atop the other’s walls. From the ground, however, in the dark and in the snow, with a stretch of forest bracketing the road ahead, there was no evidence of civilization once the outlying farms and shops petered off into the dimness.

Both carriages accelerated as they eased past the last fairy lamps into the tree-lined woods, trusting their wheel enchantments to keep them grounded. A few ruts had been carved through the white blanket ahead by other vehicles, but no effort had yet been made to clear the road, and they threw up sprays of snow to both sides as they went.

Behind them, there were now three carriages pursuing. Two were cheap Dawnco sedans of the type which had intercepted them in the city, while another stood taller and more squared in shape; it was hard to tell from ahead, with its lamps shining directly in the eyes of anyone looking back, but it appeared to be a delivery truck.

“I really hope your other allies got themselves into position,” Layla said tersely. “Otherwise our evening is going to be rather more brief than we had hoped.”

“They wouldn’t let me down,” Jasmine murmured, her eyes glued to the pursuing vehicles. “Any of them. They know where to go. We just have to hold long enough to get there.”

Suddenly the lights grew brighter. The two sedans separated to both sides and sped up to a truly reckless velocity, clearly moving forward in an attempt to flank the Eserite convoy, while the truck kept its position at the rear.

Rasha grunted, lifting one of the gold-wrapped disruptors. “And here they come.”

“Well, they have us outnumbered and alone, with no witnesses or support,” Glory said calmly, settling back into her seat, her calm smile illuminated by the flash of hostile carriage lamps accelerating forward. “Those poor bastards.”

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