Tag Archives: Heywood Paxton

9 – 27

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“I can’t help feeling all this celebrating is premature,” Joe murmured.

“That’s ‘cos it ain’t for us,” said McGraw, gesturing around at the saloon with his pint. The front wall of Whiskey Pete’s was currently boarded up, but materials and tools had already been stacked outside preparatory to actual repairs. Pete himself, while appreciative of Joe’s Imperial contact funding the reconstruction, had expressed a preference for using local labor rather than the Army personnel currently swarming over the town.

“Nonsense!” Billie proclaimed. “We are the heroes of the hour! Well, Joe is, an’ the rest of us vicariously.”

“That’s what I mean,” said Joe. He glanced around, receiving a round of cheers and upraised mugs in response, to which he felt obliged to nod and smile. The festival atmosphere in Whiskey Pete’s was reflected in the rest of Desolation today, though it was more muted than yesterday’s initial celebrations, and somewhat more sober—outside the saloon, anyway. People had dried out and gone back to work, and in some cases, to work for the first time in weeks. “Everybody in town’s acting like everything’s settled. But we know…”

“Everything is settled, far as they’re concerned,” said McGraw. “Don’t pooh-pooh everybody’s parade, Joe. Don’t forget about the danger still out there, either, but let the people have their party. They deserve it.”

“I’m inclined to agree with the kid on this one,” Weaver grunted. “A party’s an excellent opportunity for all manner of destructive bullshit. You know how many conquerors have been assassinated at their victory feasts?”

“I reckon we’ve likely got the rest of today,” McGraw mused. “At least. Plans take time to put into effect, and that’s assuming they’ve already got plans formed.”

“Well, Mr. K may be the planner,” Weaver replied, “but after Hotshot’s little stunt this morning, the Jackal is gonna be the one out for blood. And frankly, he’s the one who worries me the most anyway.”

“I do appreciate you kickin’ his attention my way,” Billie said cheerfully. “Right neighborly of ye, not hoggin’ all the action fer yerself. Ye great wanker.”

“Anytime,” Weaver said, taking a gulp of his own drink.

“As I said,” McGraw repeated, “we’ve likely got today. I wouldn’t advise dawdlin’ past that point, though. It better serves us to go on the offensive—we’re the ones with a secured base of operations and superior forces.”

“What ‘appened ta my idea?” Billie asked. “Let ’em dig up the skull an’ just take it from ’em?”

“As explained,” Weaver said, rolling his eyes, “that’s ceding the initiative and control of the timetable to the enemy…”

“Not to mention,” Joe added, “it’s best for everybody if the skull never gets dug up in the first place. If we can drive them off before that happens, this whole thing may be moot.”

“Did ye miss the part about all the oracles goin’ tits up in th’rhubarb?”

“Uh…” He coughed. “That’s one way to put it, an’ no, I didn’t. But it seems to me the Big K company is the principal risk of the thing gettin’ found.”

“Kid’s got a point,” McGraw noted. “Prophecy’s a tricky beast. Sometimes there ain’t nothin’ you can do to avoid ’em, but sometimes you can. If we do manage to beat and scatter the dragon and his friends, it might be worth pausin’ to check with Darling and see if the oracles are still goin’ nuts over this thing. That may do the trick. If the possibility exists, I’d say it’s worth pursuing. Joe’s right—best for everybody is if that damn thing stays wherever it’s buried.”

“I’m just a little nervous,” Joe said, glancing around again. “Sittin’ around relaxing while people are out there plotting against us.”

“Drink your sasparilla,” Weaver snorted. “The shit will fly in its own good time. Better to be rested and fed before we go charging back out there.”

“It’s a good instinct, Joe,” McGraw added with a smile, “but don’t let your paranoia override your situational awareness. This here town’s full of soldiers right now, and we’ve got Raea and the others patrolling the area outside.”

“Elves have to sleep, too,” Joe pointed out.

“That they do, but elves are more alert in their sleep than you are on your best day. It’s as secure a place as we can reasonably ask for at the moment. Nothin’s gonna happen tonight.”

Weaver abruptly straightened up in his chair, turning his head in a slow arc to pan his gaze around the saloon, ignoring the good-natured greetings thrown his way from the other patrons.

“What?” Joe demanded. “You hear something? Your, uh, friend…?”

Weaver grunted, finally relaxing back into his customary slouch. “Guess not. I half expected something to blow up the second he said it wouldn’t.”

“Y’do realize the world ain’t one o’ yer bard stories, aye?” Billie said.

“And there’s also the matter that things are less likely to blow up since you’ve got both hands on your pint,” he shot back.

“Aye, there’s that,” the gnome agreed cheerfully, tipping her mug back and having another gulp of ale. It was absurdly oversized in her tiny hands.

“Here, now,” Joe said, frowning. “I hate to be a meddler, but—”

“Yes, Joe, I will be perfectly sober come mornin’, an’ probably come bedtime, too. Even fer a gnome, I can handle me liquor, an’ we don’t have constitutions as delicate as you tall folk. Me mum used ta give us stronger stuff than this fer a cough remedy when I was a wee biter.”

A man in sweat-stained flannel and denim came skittering through the open doorway, where the swinging doors had once hung, barely catching his hat in time to prevent it being hurled off by his abrupt stop.

“Fire!” he shouted. “Fire at th’sheriff’s! We need hands out here!”

There was a bare beat of startled silence before everyone rose with a great scraping of chairs and clatter of boots, rushing toward the exit.

“Okay, so my timing was off,” Weaver said, standing and pushing his own chair back more leisurely. “The principle still applies.”

“There are any number of reasons a fire could break out,” McGraw said, rising as well. “Don’t borrow trouble.”

“I think we all know better,” Joe muttered, following. Billie sighed dramatically, giving her half-emptied pint a mournful look, but hopped down from her chair and came after them as they made for the door.

The crowd was a lot easier to follow than it was to get through; despite the fact that much of Desolation was allegedly back at work today, there was no shortage of rubberneckers clogging the streets. In the early afternoon sunlight, the actual glow of the fire could barely be seen, but the column of smoke rising from the sheriff’s office must have been visible for miles around.

Onlookers aside, the townsfolk had organized themselves remarkably quickly. A bucket train was already working, passing water to the office from the nearest town well. As the adventurers arrived, having to push somewhat impolitely past the crowd (or in Billie’s case, slip between their legs), another bucket of water was hurled onto the flames, and quickly handed off to a boy who darted back toward the well with it.

Sheriff Decker knelt to one side next to his deputy, who was laid out on the ground, coughing violently. The sheriff’s expression was terrifyingly blank. In the near distance, a woman was leading the two resident horses away down the street, and having to devote as much attention to calming the animals as guiding them.

“How’s it look?” McGraw asked, bounding up to him with a speed that belied his age. “He gonna be okay? Any other casualties?”

“Here for your situation report, are you?” Decker asked coldly. “Obviously, nobody but the great Longshot McGraw an’ his friends can handle a crisis on the frontier.”

“Saul, when things are settled you an’ I can sit down over drinks and you can be as much of an asshole t’me as you like,” McGraw said with uncharacteristic curtness. “Right now, though, how can we help?”

The Sheriff sighed. “Best to keep out of it, Elias. This only just broke out; they’re keepin’ it from spreading with the water. Those Imperial types are scattered all over, surveying and whatnot, but I’ve got folk fetchin’ some. Healers and mages on the way to contain this an’ help Slim.”

“’m okay,” Slim wheezed unconvincingly before dissolving into another coughing fit.

“He ain’t burned,” Decker said grimly. “Got a good lungful o’ smoke, though. Could be bad if one o’ them healers doesn’t get here pronto.”

“Oy, laddie, can ye stifle it long enough ta swallow?” Billie asked, coming up beside Slim and producing a vial of red fluid. “Cram this down yer gob; healing potion’ll do fer any serious damage to yer lungs, though it won’t do shite fer the coughing reflex.”

“M-much obliged, ma’am,” Slim said weakly, reaching for it with trembling fingers. Decker snatched the potion from her hand and uncorked it, gently holding it to the deputy’s lips.

“There we go, partner—you were right, they’re good for a little somethin’ after all. Just try to get this down without coughin’ it back up…”

“Somethin’ about this ain’t right,” McGraw said, staring at the burning office through narrowed eyes.

“Rarely have the words ‘no shit’ been more apt,” Weaver replied.

“Not that, the nature of it. That’s elemental fire—it’s magical. You don’t feel it?”

The bard frowned. “Not really, but I’m nowhere near as attuned to magic as you. Kid?”

“Nothin’,” Joe said, shaking his head. “But…same goes. If you say it’s magic, McGraw, I believe you.”

“Witchcraft,” McGraw murmured. “Or, more correctly, shamanism…”

“All right, all right, let’s everybody keep yer pants on, I got this.” Billie swaggered forward, producing a fist-sized (human fist, anyway) object from another pouch. It bore an alarming resemblance to the sonic explosive with which she had blasted out the front wall of the saloon. “You lot in the front, there, may wanna clear back a bit! This won’t hurt ye any, but may not be good fer yer togs.”

“Oh, gods, she’s doing it again,” Weaver groaned. “You can’t bomb a fire out, you demented pocket monster!”

“Ain’t a thing under the sun I can’t bomb out, gobshite,” Billie replied with a manic grin, drawing back her arm to throw. “Fire in th’hole—but not fer long!”

The bucket train dissolved, the nearest townsfolk sensibly scattering as she hurled the canister straight into the flames pouring out of the office’s front door. McGraw gestured with a staff, conjuring up a translucent wall of blue light between the group and the fire.

Sure enough, there immediately came a sharp bang from within, followed by a loud and peculiar hissing noise.

Suddenly, instead of flames and smoke, the windows of the office were spewing a thick white foam. It blasted out of the open door in a wet spray, puddling in a thicker form on the ground that oozed out over the doorstep. The townsfolk continued shuffling backward, but McGraw let the shield collapse. Not only was the foam causing no further damage, but the fire itself appeared to be vanishing under it.

“Well, damn,” Weaver said, lifting his hat to scratch his head. “There’ll be no living with her now.”

“There was no livin’ with me before, peckerwood!” Billie crowed. “Behold the power o’ modern alchemy! Maybe next time ye’ll think twice before oh come on!”

A tongue of flame erupted out the door, propelling a gout of foam in front of it. Smoke again began to trickle out the windows; the fire was clearly heavily dampened, but just as clearly not out.

“Bullshit!” Billie roared, dancing up and down in agitation. “That’s cheatin’, that is! That there is foolproof fire-retardant foam, there’s no way that bastard’s still burning!”

“As I was sayin’,” McGraw drawled, “that ain’t natural fire. It’s pure elemental flame, put there by witchcraft. Which means it won’t quit till the spell’s canceled.”

“Can you do that?” Decker demanded.

The old wizard shook his head. “Not reliably. Best I can do with arcane magic is try to cut off the air flow, but that won’t stop elemental flame. I’m afraid your office is a loss, Saul,” he added ruefully. “That stuff’ll burn right through stone and brick. You’ll need a new floor, walls…everything.”

“Figures,” the sheriff muttered. Slim coughed again, but already seemed to be doing much better for having forced down a mouthful of potion.

“The Imps’ll have clerics,” said Joe. “If the fire’s fae in origin, just tell ’em to bless the space—”

“I know my Circles, thank you,” Decker said bitingly.

“That elf,” Weaver said, scowling. “The shaman, Vannae, Khadizroth’s friend. He wasn’t at the meeting.”

“Welp, that’s one thing that fits neatly together,” Billie said, also frowning. She seemed personally offended by her device’s failure to extinguish the fire. “But what the ‘ell was the point a’ this? It’s property damage an’ a ruddy inconvenience, but even if they’d nailed the sheriff, that wouldn’t stop the Empire. Hell, it’d probably just draw the Imps’ anger. Still will, most likely.”

“A distraction,” said McGraw, stroking his beard with the hand not holding his staff. “From what, is the question. K and company would seem to be most interested in us, but we weren’t targeted.”

“Speakin’ of that,” Joe said, looking around at the muttering onlookers, “this has been going for a few minutes, and no sign of troops. This is the Corps of Enchanters and the Surveyors out here, mostly. Aren’t they pretty on the ball in a crisis?”

The four of them stared at each other for a moment, then turned as one and sprinted back toward Terminus Station.

The crowd was less concentrated now and only slowed them momentarily; in fact, once away from the burning office, their speed was improved by the general lack of people everywhere else on the streets.

There was activity around the station, however, and all of it military. The four of them slowed upon drawing in range of the soldiers standing watch over the Rail platform, chiefly because said soldiers leveled staves at them. All four raised their hands peaceably, McGraw tucking his staff into the crook of his elbow to do so.

“That’s close enough, citizens,” the nearest soldier said. “Move along.”

“What, is the Rail platform closed?” Weaver demanded. “Who’s allegedly in charge of this—”

“Whoah, whoah,” McGraw said soothingly. “Let’s be polite to the nice boys an’ girls who’re just doin’ their jobs, which involves pointing weapons at us…”

“What happened?” Joe demanded. “Is everyone okay?”

“Move along,” the soldier repeated sharply. “The situation is being handled and is none of your concern.”

“Was there an attack?” Joe persisted. “We might know who’s responsible. He also set fire to the sheriff’s office in town; they could use some help down there. It’s an elemental fire that’s only partially contained. They need divine casters to stop it completely.”

The soldier, who wore a lieutenant’s bars on his collar, glanced aside at one of his fellows and nodded. “Go check it out.”

“Yessir.” The other man raised his staff to rest it over his shoulder and darted off toward the crowd down the street.

“Now, what do you know about this?” the lieutenant demanded, keeping his scowl—and his weapon—trained on Joe.

“If we’re right,” said the Kid, “it’s an elvish shaman—”

“Is that Joe?” called a familiar voice from behind the soldiers. “Joe? Ah, and the rest of you, too! Splendid, very good. At ease, men, let them through; these are friends and valuable allies.”

The troops relaxed and lowered their weapons on command, though none of their expressions grew any less tense. The group parted, though, revealing Heywood Paxton behind them. He was red-faced and the right side of his coat was liberally flecked with ash, but he beckoned Joe and his companions forward with a look of relief.

“Glad to see you, my boy—and the rest of you, of course. I had a feeling you’d be along soonish. Just too bad you weren’t here five minutes ago!”

“Heywood, what happened?” Joe asked, peering around as he stepped up onto the platform. There were no active fires, but the evidence of them was abundant. Aside from the ash marking Paxton’s sleeve, there were large scorch marks on the floor, the wall of the stationmaster’s hut, even the ceiling. Two of the folding tables that had been set up to serve as a makeshift field office were reduced to smoldering wreckage.

There were about a dozen soldiers on site, all looking tense and unhappy at the very least. Two were sitting in folding chairs against the office wall, being tended by a third wearing the white badge of an Army cleric. The injured, a man and a woman, both had scorched uniforms, and the man’s hair was singed partially away, but evidently the cleric had had time to work; neither evinced signs of active burns. That would have been any healer’s first priority, as burns could leave lifelong scars if not healed immediately. Both wore the glassy-eyed expression of people in a state of shock, though their healer, while attentive, did not seem alarmed about their condition. The matter was apparently in hand.

“It was the damnedest thing,” Paxton said with a shaky little laugh. “I was just tending to some of my very tedious paperwork, when an elf in a suit came streaking out of nowhere at me, brandishing a knife. He threw bottles of some kind of alchemy in all directions—you see the results around you. I daresay that would have been an ample distraction for most guardians; every one of these men and women is getting a personal commendation from me for how rapidly they pulled together, even with half the station on fire, that Jackal doing his best to kill me and my silly old self wallowing around in the wreckage of my desk.”

“Ye sure got the fire out quick-like,” Billie observed.

“Credit for that goes to Lieutenant Taash,” Paxton said, nodding gratefully at a soldier whose insignia was set over the blue badge of a battlemage; she gave him a tight smile before resuming her wary study of the perimeter. “That, and saving my rubbery hide. I do believe it was the most adroit use of magic I’ve ever had the privilege of watching! She was directing gouts of wind and water in all directions, putting out flames, and still managed to keep spurts aimed at the assailant to push him away. Needless to say, that’s the only reason I’m here to regret that second helping of dessert! A much more limber man that I wouldn’t have a prayer of outmaneuvering an elf unassisted.”

“That…probably wasn’t the Jackal,” McGraw said slowly.

“Well, I’ve never met the fellow,” Paxton admitted, carefully lowering himself into one of the surviving folding chairs. “I mean, he was a wood elf in a pinstriped suit. The description doesn’t match anyone else I’ve ever heard of. Though I suppose that’s not conclusive… Anyhow, once Taash had his distraction under control and he was facing a dozen good Tiraan soldiers with staves, he took off.”

“Mm.” Joe narrowed his eyes, glancing at the lieutenant who had accosted them at the edge of the station. “You fired on him?”

“We sure tried,” the man said in an aggrieved tone.

“Was it like…he wasn’t where he seemed to be? Like you shot right at the man, but the bolts went through empty space anyhow?”

“You’re familiar with this effect?” Taash said sharply, stepping over to join them.

“More and more it sounds like Vannae,” said Joe. “A shaman we’ve faced before. I managed to take a few shots at him myself and had the same problem.”

“Those look like enchanter wands,” said the lieutenant, nodding at the weapons holstered at Joe’s belt.

“That’s Joseph Jenkins, Khavouri,” Taash said with a faint smile.

“Yes, I know,” Lieutenant Khavouri said, giving her an annoyed glance. “One weakness of those otherwise superior weapons is they shoot in reliably straight lines. These are standard-issue Imperial Army battlestaves—they shoot lightning.”

“So I see,” Weaver remarked, examining some of the burns.

“Lightning arcs,” Khavouri continued doggedly. “You don’t dodge a lightning bolt, even if you’re an elf. Electricity will go right for the path of least resistance to the ground, which compared to the stone and wood construction here, would’ve been the man’s body.”

“Unless he’s got a good shielding charm, of course,” McGraw said. “As we’re not lookin’ at a friendly-fire incident here, I’m assumin’ all of you do.”

“Standard policy,” said Taash.

“I’ve seen the effects of grounding and shielding charms,” said Khavouri. “They’re distinctive; bolts are redirected or blocked. This was like Jenkins described: the shots just didn’t hit, and they should have.”

“That can be done by a shaman, too, against lightning,” said Weaver. “It’s the only reason the Cobalt Dawn did as well as they did when they invaded. Otherwise one good volley would’ve wiped them out.”

“Anybody can put on a suit,” said Joe, turning back to Paxton. “More and more this sounds like Vannae; the Jackal would’ve finished you off, Heywood. With all respect to you ladies and gentlemen, of course,” he added, tipping his hat to the nearby soldiers. “That…man…is utterly ruthless, and he’s killed people behind some of the best defenses in existence. Trust me, I’ve had cause to research his career in detail. The Jackal doesn’t get chased off.”

“Does Vannae, though?” McGraw mused. “I seem to recall the fellow givin’ us a fair amount o’ trouble previously.”

“A distraction, innit?” suggested Billie. “He dolls himself up like the Jackal, makes the Surveyor ‘ere think ‘e’s a target, an…” She trailed off and blinked. “An’ then what?”

“So he sets a big destructive distraction in order to commit…a big, destructive distraction?” Weaver wrinkled his nose. “That’s either one very bored knife-ear, or we’re missing something important.”

“Tell you what,” said McGraw, “you folks carry on this discussion, lemme know what you figure out. I better go catch Raea up on this.” He vanished with a soft crackle and a flash of blue light.

“Who’s Raea?” Paxton asked, blinking.

“His shaman friend,” said Weaver. “She and some other elves are helping scout the Big K base. They’re…I dunno, somewhere. Around the town, keeping watch.”

“You put plains elves around this town?” Khavouri said incredulously.

“We didn’t put them anywhere,” Weaver sneered. “They went where they chose, and we didn’t try to tell them they couldn’t. If you wanna have a go, knock yourself out.”

“Peace, please,” said Joe. “The immediate question is, what are we gonna do about this?”

“Who do you think ‘we’ is?” Khavouri demanded.

“We are,” Billie said helpfully.

He ignored her. “This is an Imperial matter. A rogue agent assaulted Imperial interests; the Empire will deal with it. You lot, whoever you are—”

Another soldier softly cleared her throat. In fact, it was the young woman who had been alone on duty in Terminus Station the first couple of times Joe and company had visited. She gave Khavouri a meaningful look; he broke off, snapping his jaw shut, and grimaced as if tasting something sour.

“…and, as per Imperial policy,” Khavouri continued in a calmer but not happier tone, “I am classifying your group as adventurers and invoking the necessary protocols. That means you get sent head-first into…whatever is going on. You can either succeed in thwarting it or serve as a distraction while the actual soldiers take coordinated action.”

“Pleasure doing business,” Weaver said sarcastically.

“It occurs t’me we’re havin’ a conversation with two lieutenants,” Billie noted. “Who’s actually s’pposed t’be in charge around ‘ere?”

“Ah, Captain Causewick is off supervising one of the surveying teams,” Paxton said almost apologetically. “Naturally, I have no actual rank as such, at least not with regard to the Army, but…it seems I’m the most senior Imperial officer present. And, for the record, I concur with Lieutenant Khavouri’s assessment. Though I’d perhaps have put it a trifle more diplomatically,” he added reproachfully to the lieutenant in question.

“I’m still stuck on what the point of all this might be,” said Billie. “It seems roundabout and…well, just plain weird. They risk a lot, cheesin’ off the Empire like this. None of ’em struck me as that dumb, ‘specially not Big K ‘imself. What’re we missin’?”

“Depends on what K an’ his crew do an’ don’t know,” Joe said grimly. “If they’re aware that Mr. Paxton is a friend of mine, threatening him is a tidy way to keep me pinned down here, an’ possibly the rest of you with me.”

“Here, now,” Paxton said, frowning and leaning forward in his chair, which creaked in protest. “I absolutely refuse to be the cause of you being hampered. The blaggard caught us off-guard before; now I’m surrounded by the Empire’s finest, all on high alert. You go and do what you need to out there.”

“Oh, I’m with you on that,” Joe said darkly. “In fact, I think Khadizroth and company have just launched themselves to a higher level of priority. If Raea and the others are on board,” he said, turning to include Billie and Weaver, “I do believe it’s time we group up and start moving. They won’t have had time to dig in their defenses yet. Let’s not give it to them.”

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9 – 20

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“What the hell?” Weaver demanded.

Sound carried a long way over the Badlands; they had known something peculiar was afoot in Desolation long before reaching it. Once the weathered stone buildings of the town hove into view, the distant cacophony was compounded by the sight of people moving about in the streets, in greater numbers and with much greater energy than they had seen them do before. Though hints had begun to form as soon as they drew near enough to pick some meaning out of the noise, it wasn’t until nearly reaching the outskirts of the town itself that the three could be certain what was going on in Desolation.

It appeared to be a party.

Approaching the town from the same direction in which they had left, the group entered through the old streets leading past mostly abandoned buildings rather than the main avenue. As such, the citizens were a peripheral presence until they were well into the town itself, heard but glimpsed only in passing. From what little they could hear, everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

Now, finally emerging into the central avenue, the group had to stop and stare. The street was all but filled, and all the festival atmosphere lacked were decorations. Whatever was happening had apparently not been planned, but resulted in most of the town’s population milling about, laughing, talking, shouting and drinking. Two groups of musicians could be heard, both playing exuberantly in the same frontier style, but between their unpolished performances and the multiple tunes running it was impossible to tell what banjo was supposed to be harmonizing what fiddle. As McGraw, Billie and Weaver arrived, gaping, a great cheer went up near Terminus Station, where most of the crowd seemed to be centered, followed by a loud toast to the Emperor’s health and more cheering.

Mere moments later, they were spotted. A general hue and cry went up, people rushing forward toward the three. Unlike their previous encounter with Desolation’s agitated populace, though, everyone was smiling. In moments they were being cheerfully slapped on the back and possibly congratulated or thanked. Between the general noise and the fact that a good half the crowd had clearly been well into their whiskey, it was hard to tell.

Several townsfolk stumbled back as a great puff of wind burst out from beneath Billie, where she had dropped a small object. The gnome lifted upward on a levitation charm, grabbing McGraw’s sleeve and clambering up to seat herself precariously on his shoulder.

“Well, damn!” she shouted, grinning madly. “I should blow up towns more often!”

“Why is it,” Weaver demanded, “that once everyone’s smiling you’re willing to take—”

“All right, all right, everybody give ’em some air! Land’s sakes, you’re gonna drown ’em. C’mon, clear a path.”

Somewhat reluctantly, the still-shouting citizens shifted, creating an opening through which Joe approached, smiling and gently shooing people away.

“Kid, what the hell did you do?” Weaver demanded.

“Exactly what I said I was gonna do,” Joe replied, tucking his thumbs into his belt and grinning. “How was your trip? Any luck?”

“Good bit of luck, in fact,” said McGraw, having to raise his voice over the din. “Maybe we oughtta discuss it in a quieter environment. Care to bring us up to speed, here?”

“Better yet, I’ll show you.” Joe turned to head back toward the Rail station, grinning and beckoning. “C’mon, I think you’ll like this!”

They continued to be shouted at, backslapped and offered drinks all the way to the station. It wasn’t far, fortunately, and while some of the most earnest carousing seemed to be taking place in its immediate vicinity, the station itself was an island of order, watched over by Imperial soldiers. Easily a dozen of them, enforcing a perimeter between the station’s occupants and the crowd outside.

A caravan was resting on the tracks, its hatches open; more troops were unloading crates, while others carefully unpacked them and laid out an orderly selection of arcane equipment. Sheriff Decker stood off to the side with two portly older men; he gave the approaching group a long, unreadable look upon their arrival.

“The rest of the Imperial Surveyors are already spread out through the town,” Joe noted as he escorted the others toward Decker’s group. “The uniformed folks currently unpacking are with the Army Corps of Enchanters. Looks like there’ll be plenty of work for everyone pretty soon.”

“What work?” Billie demanded, still from her perch on McGraw’s shoulder. She was a little too wide in the bottom to make it a comfortable position, but held her balance well enough. The old wizard made no complaint, but moved rather more slowly and carefully than was his usual custom.

“You remember Sheriff Decker, of course,” Joe went on as they joined the three men. “Allow me to introduce Mayor Tweed, who’s in charge in this town, and my old friend Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.”

“Mornin’, Elias,” the slightly younger of the two overweight men said cheerfully. “Bout time you brought me somethin’ other than trouble! And these’ll be Gravestone and the Tinker. Lemme see if I can figure out which is which!”

“This is a real honor, all of you,” added Paxton, grinning. “A real honor! Upon my word, the older I get, the more fascinating people I get to meet! Perhaps I should blame Joe, eh? Seems every time I encounter a paladin or dryad or famous wandfighter, he’s lurking around somewhere!”

“Well, I’ll take the blame for this one,” Joe said easily, “since I did bring you out here, an’ all. Last time, though, you came to my town.”

“Indeed, indeed! And I do hope you won’t take this the wrong way, Joe, but so far I’m enjoying this one a lot more.”

“At the expense of repeating myself,” Weaver said flatly, “what the hell is happening here?!”

Paxton turned to look at Joe in surprise. “You didn’t tell them?”

“I told ’em what I was planning,” the Kid said with a shrug. “Maybe they didn’t believe me.”

“Uh, point of order,” said Billie, finally hopping down. Despite the drop being easily twice her height, she didn’t so much as grunt upon landing. “You told us you were gonna go try to get the Empire to come out and help here. Since you were talkin’ about moving a massive bureaucracy off its bum in the space o’ one day, we all ‘ad a laugh an’ ignored you. Because that’s stupid, Joe. Grumpypants has a valid question.”

“Well, Mr. Jenkins gets a good share of credit, here,” said Paxton, chuckling, “but not all of it. We didn’t just spin all of this out of thin air; the plans have been percolating for a good few years now. Joe got myself and Bishop Darling on board, though, and we were able to light a fire under the relevant Imperial departments, and…here we are!”

“Where?” Weaver exclaimed. “Where are we?”

“It’s the most miraculous thing!” Mayor Tweed enthused. Beside him, Decker folded his brawny arms, looking far more skeptical. “No less than three major Imperial projects being constructed in and around Desolation! Look here, we’ve got it all laid out.” He turned and gesticulated at the wall of the ticket office, which was plastered with maps, blueprints and documents. They made little sense at first glance, having been slapped into place rather haphazardly, but Tweed carried on explaining. “First, the Rail line’s being extended—they’re finally putting in lines to Puna Dara and Rodvenheim! About time, I’d say. And that will make Desolation a hub, not just the end o’ the line. An international hub, even! Plus!” He leaned over to slap a hasty diagram of what seemed to be some kind of tower. “Zeppelin docks!”

“Zeppelin docks?” McGraw frowned. “Here? Why?”

“A step forward in another long-envisioned project,” Paxton explained. “You see, my friends, the common theme of these projects is diversification. In terms of transport, the Empire is heavily depended on its Rail network to get anything around. The Rail freeze this spring was an object lesson in how risky that can be. Zeppelin transport is many times slower, of course—but it’s a lot safer.”

“Really says something about the Imperial Rail service that a conveyance which can fall thousands of feet is safer,” Weaver commented.

“And that ties right into the other big deal going here,” Paxton continued. “The biggest deal, in fact! You see, a major transport freeze has the potential to cause more than just economic harm. A disproportionate amount of food comes from the Tira Valley and Great Plains—that’s the lion’s share of the really good farmland on this continent. In the old days, of course, kingdoms grew only as much as they could manage to feed themselves, but now, there are entire provinces that have to import food just to break even. The Stalrange, the Wyrnrange, the Tidestrider Isles… Tiraas itself doesn’t grow so much as an apple. There are places that just couldn’t survive if not for Imperial produce. A famine could be caused not only by a transportation crisis, but any localized disaster affecting our crop-producing regions.”

“What, aren’t there storehouses?” Weaver demanded.

“You’re gonna farm in the Badlands?” Billie said skeptically.

“In the mines!” Mayor Tweed said, beaming.

They all stared at him.

“I’ve a few thoughts on that,” Weaver said finally, “but I’ve been asked not to express such things to people who hold Imperial office.”

“It’s about Tar’naris,” Paxton said. “We learned a lot from the terraforming project there. Underground farming isn’t innately easy, but with the right enchantments, equipment and upkeep, subterranean farms turn out to be a lot less vulnerable to certain problems than conventional ones. Weather, for example, is a non-issue. The Surveyor Corps has been kicking around the idea of doing something similar on a smaller scale for the Empire’s benefit for years. Desolation has numerous underground spaces that are already cut in usable shapes, even better than natural caves. Better yet, it’s got a huge underground aquifer—there’s a natural lake far below the bedrock. This will be our test case!”

“Construction!” Tweed enthused. “Lots and lots of construction! Commerce routed through the town from all over the Empire! And ultimately, we’ll become a food-exporting province! My friends, by bringing us to the Empire’s attention, I can say without exaggeration or embellishment that you have saved this dying town from the brink!”

“Huh,” Weaver mused, studying the wall of charts and plans.

“Step one is scouting the land, of course,” said Paxton. “My own colleagues are at work in the area, and the Aces are gearing up to follow suit, as you can see around you.”

“Aces?” Billie inquired.

“Army Corps of Enchanters,” Joe explained. “It’s an acronym. Anyway, gentlemen, my apologies for interrupting your planning. If I could borrow my friends for just a moment? We need to have a word in private.”

“Of course, of course!” said Mayor Tweed. “And you’ll have to be our guests afterward. Heroes like you deserve to be celebrated!”

“Feels odd to be arguing against that,” Weaver muttered as Joe led them a distance away, toward an end of the Rail platform not being used by the Army to offload their surveying equipment. “In honesty, though, all we’ve done here was blow up the saloon.”

“Excuse you, I blew up the saloon,” Billie said haughtily. “I’ll take yer share of celebratin’, if y’don’t want it.”

“Elias, can you arrange us a little privacy?” Joe asked.

McGraw glanced thoughtfully at the nearby soldiers. “Well…”

“Oh, don’t mind us,” said a passing woman wearing a lieutenant’s bars. “There’s no law against sound-dampening effects near Imperial personnel.”

“All righty, then,” the old man said with a grin, and tapped the butt of his staff twice against the ground.

The sphere that sprung up around them was only barely visible, rippling like heat waves off the desert; its primary effect was to cut off sound from outside the bubble.

“Thanks,” said Joe, his expression growing more serious. “I need to pass on word from Darling: this stroke of good fortune comes with a warning. These plans were all things that’ve been brewing for some years already, but havin’ ’em all put into effect now is the result of more intervention than he could muster. It was Lord Quentin Vex who added his weight to the initiative that got all this in motion.”

“Vex?” Weaver frowned. “The head of Imperial Intelligence.”

“We’ve been seein’ signs of his handiwork out here, too,” McGraw commented, extracting a cigarillo from his case. “Much smaller ones, though. This is a whole different animal. What do the Imps want out here?”

“Almost certainly the same thing we do,” said Weaver.

“The reality is,” Joe continued gravely, “some of these projects are…less feasible than others. It’s lucky the underground farming is gonna be the biggest, because that’s the one they’re most serious about. The bit with extending the Rail…”

“Way ahead o’ ye,” said Billie. “Rodvenheim an’ Puna Dara are sovereign states; y’can’t just build infrastructure to their gates. That’s gonna require diplomacy, and I know bugger all about international relations but it seems t’me if either o’ them wanted a Rail line they’d’ve had one long since.”

“The zeppelin thing may be premature, too,” Joe added. “Right now, zeps are strictly military transport. Expanding them to carry civilian passengers and freight is a good idea, I think, but the fact is we’re talkin’ about building an installation for an infrastructure network that doesn’t exist.”

“Well, the key to making something exist is to actually build it,” Weaver pointed out. “I don’t see how any of this affects us, anyway. We’ll be long gone before any of these grandiose plans can fall through.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re not responsible,” Joe retorted.

“No, the fact that we’re not responsible means we’re not responsible! Even you, kid, don’t have the power to make the Empire do this—the Empire does what it wants. And we aren’t even involved!”

“I helped!” Billie chimed. “I cleverly created a sense of urgency by blowin’ up th—”

“Will you button it, you sadistic crotch goblin!”

“Now, I might be mistaken,” McGraw commented, puffing on his cigarillo. “It wouldn’t be the first time. But the Tirasian Dynasty has always ruled by carefully managing people’s opinions—both powerful interests and the general public. Sharidan’s pretty damn good at that game. Lord Vex is a crafty old crow himself, an’ not about to undermine the Emperor. However it may look from our limited perspective, Joe, I can’t imagine the Empire would invite the kind of unrest they would be by making grand promises out here and then yankin’ the rug out from under the whole province. In the age o’ scrolltowers and newspapers, that kind of hanky-panky could have continent-wide repercussions.”

“I guess,” Joe said, frowning.

“I’m not much inclined to trust governments myself,” McGraw said with a grin. “But this one knows its best interests and is reasonably competent. Surprising as it is to see them actually workin’ out here…well, I think the odds are good they intend to see the work done.”

“On a more pertinent note,” said Weaver, “how does all this help us? It’s great for the town and all, but…”

“It’s about positioning,” said Joe. “Previously, it was us and Khadizroth’s group, head-to-head in the Badlands. He had a defensible position, forcing us to go on the attack, and we were both out of favor with the locals, making the population a big fat variable. Now, Desolation is not only crawling with Imperial interests, but the local folks think we’re the bee’s knees. We have a secure fallback position, one we can deny to his group. Thanks to all this, the advantage is ours.”

“It is very early in the game to be counting chickens,” McGraw cautioned. “Still, you’ve got a good point there, Joe. Our position looks a lot better than it did yesterday. Now, concerning the other allies I’ve found for us—”

“Uh, lads?” said Billie, pointing. “I can’t exactly read lips through this shimmery bit, but that crowd looks suddenly less celebratory than it did.”

They all turned to follow her finger. Indeed, the motions of the large knot of people that had formed on the outer edges of the Rail station were far more aggressive than previously. Tellingly, Tweed, Paxton, and Decker all looked alarmed by this, and the soldiers had stopped what they were doing and taken up weapons.

“Oh, this could get bad in a hurry,” Joe said worriedly, striding forward through the wall of the bubble. The others swiftly followed suit.

Outside the dampening bubble, the crowd was indeed angry. There was no more music; there were threats and insults. Joe had to raise his own voice considerably to get a path opened up toward the center of the cluster. “Hey, hey, hey! C’mon, now, I thought this was a party! Let’s all settle down, here. What’s all the fuss about?”

He fell silent as the crowd finally parted, their seething voices subsiding somewhat as he deflected their attention to himself. In the middle of what had been a knot of citizens clearly on the verge of serious aggression stood two dwarves, a man and a woman. They wore simple working clothes and seemed wary, but not particularly alarmed at the prospect of the mob trying to form around them.

“They don’t belong here!” shouted a woman from the back of the throng. A chorus of agreement rose around her.

“Job-stealin’ tunnel rats!”

“Go back under yer own mountain!”

“Whoah, whoah, whoah!” Joe exclaimed, holding up both hands. “People, please! C’mon. Look, I understand what’s been happenin’ here,, but you can’t just go blamin’ every dwarf you see for what the Big K company does.”

“They’re with Big K!” a man in the front shouted accusingly. “Ask ’em!”

“That’s true, in fact,” said the male dwarf. “Excuse me, Mr. Jenkins, isn’t it? My companion and I…”

Anything else he said was lost in a rising tide of imprecations from the surrounding crowd.

They fell quiet again when Joe drew his wand and fired it thrice into the sky. Rather than its usual quiet beams, he let loose several satisfyingly loud bolts of lightning.

“Okay,” Joe said into the relative quiet which ensued. “I take your meaning, folks. But let me pose you a hypothetical, all right? We all know the Five Kingdoms have been hit as hard as this region by the Narisian Treaty. Now, suppose some dwarven outfit came out here hirin’. Suppose they were lookin’ for experienced miners to take on work up in the mountains themselves. Payin’ well, so you could afford to send money back an’ take care of your families. Wouldn’t you folks jump on that?”

People muttered uncertainly; the dwarves simply watched Joe with speculative expressions. On the Rail platform, the soldiers stood ready, not going back to their work, but not moving to intervene yet.

“I think you’d have to be crazy not to,” Joe continued, grinning disarmingly. “But there you’d be, in dwarven country, takin’ jobs from the folk who live there an’ probably not makin’ any of them happy. But…well, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta, right? We all need to eat, an’ provide for our people. C’mon, we’ve had a big stroke of good luck in Desolation, today. Let’s not take out our frustrations on honest folk just tryin’ to make a living.”

“That Mr. K’s an asshole,” someone grumbled very loudly. “Pushin’ us around…” This brought another chorus of surly assent, but the general mood of the crowd had become much calmer.

“Well, now, let’s see a show of hands,” said Joe with a broad smile. “How many of you have never worked for an idiot or a jerk? Not once?”

Chuckles ran around the crowd now; only a few hands appeared in the air.

“Luke, you put your hand up this second!”

“Hey now, Pa, you run a good outfit, but remember that time you was sick an’ Uncle George had ta run the store fer a week?”

That brought outright laughter. People began to drift away, some looking abashed. In the next moments, a fiddle struck up a tune, joined quickly by a banjo and tambourine.

“Well, well, well,” Billie drawled quietly, jabbing her elbow into Joe’s thigh. “Talented, cute, earnest, and he knows how to work a crowd. You’re dangerous, boy.”

He coughed awkwardly, beckoning to the two dwarves, who stepped up onto the platform, McGraw and Weaver moving back to make room. The nearby soldiers stared very pointedly at the few remaining townsfolk who continued to watch the visitors with hostile expressions, but nothing further came of it.

“That was rather impressive,” said the woman, smiling up at Joe. “In fact, you remind me of Mr. K, somewhat.”

“I…have no idea how to take that,” he said frankly.

McGraw cleared his throat pointedly. “There somethin’ we can help you folks with?”

“Yes, in fact,” said the male dwarf, removing his hat and bowing politely to them. “I suppose there’s little need to ask who you are; the descriptions are quite distinctive. Mr. K would like to talk with you all, in a quiet and civil manner, at your earliest convenience.”


 

“I’m sorry I never manage to take you anywhere nice,” Teal said.

Shaeine turned her head, raising her chin so that Teal could see her smile even from the depths of her hood. “Everywhere is nice, so long as you are with me.”

The bard couldn’t repress a grin at that. “Hee… You are smooth, you know that?”

“Yes, I do.” Shaeine momentarily pressed the back of her hand against Teal’s. Much as she wanted to take Shaeine’s hand—or, to be honest, to take her in her arms—Teal respected her reserve as always. Spending time over the summer with Shaeine’s family had been very instructive. In any case, even if she had been tempted to doubt the drow’s affection, such nascent doubts were always swiftly washed away as soon as they found themselves in private.

“It bothers me, though,” she said more soberly as they continued to stroll. It was a quiet street, out of the way, but not deserted by any means. One wall of the entire block was formed by the exterior of the warehouse complex, beneath which was Malivette’s basement with its secret tunnel to Dufresne Manor. The rest was all shops, though—quiet, genteel shops, frequented by people who, one and all, had a suspicious stare for a figure in cowled robes walking alongside a short-haired girl in a man’s suit. “Having to hide you. You should be treated with more respect.”

“It would be one thing if I had to hide,” Shaeine pointed out. “There are no such laws, and frankly I doubt showing my face would lead to violence, or danger. We are simply acting to ward off misunderstandings. The initiative, the choice, are still ours.”

“Mm,” Teal mused. “You know what I mean, though.”

“Yes.” Again, that deft little hand pressed against her own. “I am proud to be seen with you, too. I get the better end of this deal; at least everyone can see how lucky I am.”

Teal couldn’t help grinning again. “Almost too smooth. How do you expect me to learn Narisian reserve if you won’t stop making me smile?”

“I am selfish. I’ll risk any hardship to enjoy your smile.”

After that comment, she couldn’t make herself withhold it.

They reached the end of the warehouse and turned around, heading back. Waiting for Trissiny to get back from the Imperial Army barracks, hopefully with the other two paladins in tow, was tedious business in the basement; Teal and Shaeine had volunteered to take the watch more for the chance at some fresh air than because they feared any kind of attack. Indeed, the street was peacefully quiet. It was a pleasant place, in truth, enough so that they could almost ignore the way people glared at them.

“Morning, dears,” said a flower seller as they neared; she had been turned around, rummaging in the back of her stall, on their previous passing. Now, the woman smiled, leaning forward and holding out a small bunch of violets. “I’ve just the thing to brighten your day!”

“Well, why not?” Teal said, coming to a stop and accepting the violets. “Oh, look how fresh these are! How much?”

“Nonsense, my lady,” the woman said warmly. “On the house, for you.”

“Oh!” Teal blinked in surprise. “Well, that’s very… I mean, I don’t want to put you out.”

“It is no hardship,” said the flower seller. “Merely a pittance. I think the three of you are more than due a spot of kindness.”

Muted sounds of activity continued up and down the street, but an island of total stillness fell around the flower stall.

“Excuse me,” Shaeine said evenly, “the three of us?”

“Some more hidden than others,” the woman said, still wearing that placid smile. She stepped to the side, moving with a pronounced limp, and began hanging bunches of wildflowers from the posts holding up her awning. “I know what it’s like, having to conceal who you are. Not, of course, in the way Lady Vadrieny must, but I’ve worn a cloak or two in my time. Rather stifling, aren’t they, Lady Shaeine? My apologies, I don’t actually know the right formal address in your culture.”

“I think you had better explain yourself,” Teal said quietly.

“Of course! My name’s Vanessa. Oof, sorry… You don’t mind if I sit down, I trust?” She pulled a wooden stool from the corner of her stall over to the front and perched on it with a soft sigh of relief. “Ahh… Getting better all the time. I’m afraid my leg just hasn’t been the same since I was in the Cathedral.”

“Your…” Teal narrowed her eyes. “The Cathedral?”

“The Grand Cathedral,” Vanessa said matter-of-factly, “in Tiraas. A broken femur is not a small thing, I’m afraid.”

“That is a fortuitous place to have it happen,” said Shaeine. “At least there were healers present, yes?”

“Oh, yes indeed,” Vanessa said, twisting her lips in an expression that was very nearly a sneer. “They healed it right up. Then broke it again. Then healed it, then broke it… Had this happened over a long stretch of time, I’m sure I’d have been able to count how many times. It was all back to back to back, though, on and on. Enough of that in one prolonged sitting, and strange things start to happen to your mind. You lose all sense of time, of place, of who you are… Eventually, there’s nothing but the pain. That’s the whole point, of course. As a side effect, the healings get less and less effective. The more repetitions, the more likely you’ll have lingering effects.”

“Y-you…” Teal stuttered. “Why would… Who are you?”

“I’m Vanessa,” she said with a patient smile. She produced a bundle of dark purple wildflowers from a drawer and laid them out on her stall’s counter. “You know very well who I represent, my lady. And I know what you’re here for. Tellwyrn’s little assignments aren’t generally of interest to us, but it’s a worthy thing you are doing. This poor city is in bad shape, and the authorities aren’t having any luck straightening it out.”

“What do you want?” Shaeine demanded.

“To help.” As she spoke, Vanessa deftly braided flowers together with a long strip of black ribbon, gradually forming a wreath. “In whatever way you need. Your group is a potent force, to be sure, but you are at a disadvantage in dealing with diffuse troubles such as Veilgrad’s. Dozens of issues are rising up in every corner of the city—of the province. You need more pairs of hands, the ability to cover more ground than the nine of you can alone. We stand ready to serve.”

“If you intend to threaten us,” Shaeine began.

“Threaten you?” Vanessa’s hands clenched on the forming wreath. She stared fiercely into Teal’s eyes. “The dark lady has countless warlocks, and can always get more. You are irreplaceable. Threaten you? I would spend the last drop of my blood protecting you, if that is what it required.”

“What…” Teal swallowed heavily, unable to tear her gaze away from the woman’s. “What did the Church… What did you tell them?”

“Tell them? Oh, please,” Vanessa smiled again, bitterly. “This is the twelfth century. No professional tortures anybody for information, that’s terribly counterproductive. No…you torture someone to get the attention of whoever cares about whoever you’re hurting. It’s not so bad, in the end. I’m getting help from a shaman; she says I should be mostly able to walk as normal after a couple of years of the right therapy, though I’ll always be able to feel when it’s about to rain. And they got my friends’ attention, all right,” she added darkly. “The Universal Church does not employ torturers at present. They haven’t any left.”

“I cannot believe the Church would do such a thing in the first place,” Teal said sharply. “And I certainly have no reason to trust you.”

“Of course,” Vanessa said agreeably. “Trust is earned; you hardly know me, after all. I am simply making the offer, my lady, because I hate to think of you not knowing the resources that exist at your disposal.” She smiled, warmly, holding Teal’s gaze with her own. “When you need help, call for us. We will come.”

“I don’t need that kind of help.”

“Right now, at this moment? No, you don’t. Far better to continue enjoying your day. I’d recommend against making assumptions about the future, though.” Vanessa shook her head. “Have you discovered anything about Veilgrad’s problems? Our working theory right now is that there is a chaos rift somewhere in the area. That can become a catastrophe the likes of which you can hardly imagine. Never turn down help.”

“I could call for the police,” Teal said. “Have you arrested.”

“For what?” Vanessa chuckled. “Don’t worry, my lady, I am not offended; you’ve had some unfortunate accidents of education. Experience is a good teacher. Just remember what I said, girls. When you need us, call.”

It was a shady street, but it was nonetheless shocking when the shadows swelled up around Vannessa, then receded, leaving nothing behind but the flower stall.

On the counter sat the small wreath of dark flowers, braided with black ribbon.

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4 – 14

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They came to a stop in the middle of the street, hearing the crash. Trissiny and Gabriel exchanged a brief look, then turned and dashed back the way they had come, toward the barn. She smoothly drew her sword while in motion, eyes darting about in search of threats. Despite the ongoing noise from up ahead, in which they could now hear shouts and curses in addition to the continued ruckus of battle, the town itself remained eerily still. It was as if, improbable as that seemed, all the roughnecks and thugs hanging around had spontaneously gone elsewhere. For the moment, though, Trissiny was grateful enough to have only one apparent threat on which to concentrate.

Gabriel skidded as they rounded the corner, nearly overbalancing; she, being far more athletic, came to a smooth stop, taking in the scene.

Two men lay in the street, the same two who had been previously guarding the door. Another was in the process of stumbling down from the board sidewalk, limping heavily and clutching one arm. There was no sign of the Riders, and though the details weren’t exactly explicit, from their garb these were townsfolk rather than ruffians. Given the lack of apparent external threats, whatever was happening had begun inside the tavern.

That hypothesis gained weight as the front window exploded outward and a man flew through, striking the edge of the sidewalk painfully on his way to sprawling in the street.

Trissiny bounded to his side, kneeling to place a hand on his shoulder. He was bleeding from multiple cuts, thanks to the window, and though she couldn’t tell past his sturdy denim and flannel garb, it was very possible he’d broken something and inconceivable that he wasn’t heavily bruised. She drew on Avei’s light, sending a gentle wave of energy through him. Just enough to stop any bleeding, internal or otherwise, and prevent him from expiring from trauma. Too much divine magic was risky with an undiagnosed patient; healing a broken bone without setting it in the right position first could cripple a person for life.

“What happened?” she demanded as the man’s eyes swam back into focus. “Is it the Riders?”

His gaze locked on her face, and then his eyes widened as though he’d just remembered what was happening. He clutched her arm frantically.

“Gods, you’ve gotta do something! She’s insane!”

“Oh,” Trissiny growled, her expression collapsing in a scowl. “Ruda.”

One of the men in the street was already standing, the other being helped upright by Gabriel. She paused to touch the limping fellow on his apparently injured arm, giving him a soft boost of light to ease the trauma, then turned resolutely toward the saloon and marched in. This involved pushing past the broken doors, one of which was angled crazily across the doorway and somehow stuck. Luckily, kicking it down suited her mood.

The scene inside was utter chaos at a glance. The more than two dozen men present were either fighting or on the ground and injured; half of the light fixtures were knocked out, and ninety percent of the furniture had been smashed, some of that serving as makeshift cover for cowering townsfolk who’d apparently had enough. Sweeping her gaze around the room, however, Trissiny’s trained mind put the various pieces into place, and she realized that she was looking at one of the most flawlessly controlled battlefields she’d ever seen.

Heywood Paxton had retreated to a front corner, where he was clutching Ruda’s sheathed rapier in front of himself as if it would bar the brawl from reaching him. Oddly enough, it seemed to have worked; his suit wasn’t so much as rumpled and nobody had come within ten feet of the Surveyor. Toby was moving efficiently around the perimeter of the tavern, aglow with divine energy, helping men upright and healing injuries as he found them. It was the circular pattern that was impressive; the center of the room was mostly cleared, but knots of men had clumped together around the outside. Most were now lying or sitting amid the ruins of their tables, but two groups were still actively brawling.

Trissiny could see how it had been done. The original layout of the room had had Paxton, the students and the heads of the four families ensconced at the center table (now on its side with half its legs broken off), while their various sons and relatives had organized themselves by clan around the wall. Quickly identifying each of the men she’d seen sit down to parley and where they currently were—all but Wilcox now down—Trissiny could retrace the steps that had led to this. All Ruda had to do was get a fight going and then push each patriarch into the arms of a rival clan. Men would have crossed the center to get to their objectives, but the action would ultimately concentrate itself around those four men, swiftly turning the brawlers’ attention from Ruda to each other. Eventually the fighting would spill everywhere, as fighting invariably did, but that wouldn’t matter of someone were to systematically move around the edge of the room, taking advantage of the brawlers’ preoccupation with one another to beat down each group one at a time.

Grudgingly, she had to recognize the quick thinking, tactical savvy and martial skill it had taken to pull this off. Unless, of course, it was all the random outcome of a completely aimless act of aggression. Not long ago, Trissiny would have instantly made that assumption, but Gabriel’s recent question about Ruda’s intelligence made her wonder.

As she entered, the second-to last knot of struggling men was in the process of being dismantled. Ruda, armed with a table leg, circled the edge of the group, delivering methodical blows to legs that took fighters neatly out of the action, until she had whittled down their numbers and the remaining three men turned on her, finally realizing who the true threat here was. It was a bit dicier from there, but Ruda’s unique blend of deftness and savagery quickly put down the overmatched farmers. Trissiny noted, also, some of the skills she herself had drilled into the pirate during their morning practice sessions with Teal.

The last fellow actually backed away, raising his hands in surrender, and Ruda, grinning, tossed the table leg to him, then rolled her shoulders and cracked her knuckles before stalking over to the last group of fighting men, which included Mr. Wilcox. She was limping and bleeding from both the lip and forehead, but seemed no less energetic. Her target group was down to six men, Wilcox and two of his apparent relatives being backed against the wall and beset by a pair from one side and a particularly hulking fellow from another.

Ruda diverted her course toward the middle as she went, picking up the only two intact chairs within reach. One she hurled directly into the two on the left, then smashed the other across the big man’s back.

Gabriel shoved past Trissiny, coming to a stop just inside and taking in the scene as quickly as she had, though probably with less understanding of what he was seeing.

“Holy shit! Are…should we help her?”

“No.”

He gave her a sidelong look. “Is this a warrior-culture thing where you don’t interfere in somebody else’s battle, or are you just pissed at her for starting a fight?”

“Yes.”

“How do we even know she started it?”

Trissiny looked at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, sticking his hands in his pockets.

The two attackers were already down, as was one of the Wilcox boys. Ruda’s chair was reduced to two legs, with which she was hammering at the big man, using no stickfighting technique Trissiny knew, but holding her own. She feinted at his groin; like a lot of intimidatingly burly men in rural towns, he’d never bothered to learn an actual fighting style, and went for it in panic, hunching forward to protect his jewels with both thick forearms. Ruda neatly clocked him on both sides of the head with the chair legs, and he went down like a sack of flour. Trissiny winced; head trauma was always a serious matter. Fortunately, Toby was working on the last group to face the pirate’s wrath, and already looking ahead at the current fight between patients.

The Wilcox patriarch and his younger kinsman both raised their hands, backing against the wall.

“Miss,” Wilcox began, “I—”

Ruda jabbed them both viciously in the solar plexi, then dropped her improvised weapons, turned and was walking away before they had finished slumping to the floor.

“Damn,” Gabriel muttered.

“You with the hand!” Ruda barked, stomping up to a man lying on his own closer to the middle of the room than most. He was, in fact, cradling a hand to his chest; the position obscured it somewhat, but Trissiny could see a couple of fingers clearly bent the wrong way. Ruda prodded him in the shoulder with her boot, the force used just short of qualifying as a kick. He took this with a whimper.

“Bad. Fucking. Form.” Ruda growled, nudging him again. “You do not pull a wand in a bar fight, you little shit. There are rules. I see you doing anything like that again and next time I’m not gonna be so playful with you. Savvy?”

“My apologies, ma’am,” he gasped.

She grunted, then bent to pick up the wand lying a couple of feet from him, twirling it in her fingers. “Behave yourself and I’ll think about letting you have this back later.”

“Much obliged, ma’am.”

Ruda turned from him, limping over to the center of the room, where she swiveled slowly, dragging her gaze across all those present. A surprising number quailed back from her. Even as short as she was, even badly disheveled and obviously injured, her sheer presence commanded everyone’s attention.

“Listen up, fuckers!” she said, not yelling, but projecting as well as any actor on stage. Her voice boomed through the room, echoing off the stone walls. “You, the hard-working, hard-drinking, hard-fighting pride and manhood of the whole goddamn town of Sarasio, just got your collective asses kicked by a girl. There are two kinds of men among you right now: the bitterly ashamed, and utter fucking morons. There’s some overlap there. The question you need to be asking is this: Just how the hell did this happen?!”

Ruda paused, letting her words sink in. The silence was nearly total, broken only by soft scuffling and the occasional whimper, and the muted sound of Toby murmuring encouragement to the burly fellow he was in the process of healing from a head injury. Ruda slowly dragged her gaze across the assembled men again, curling her lip up in a sneer.

“What you’ve just experienced was the whole last goddamn year in miniature. Here comes an outside force, systematically moving across the room and beating each of your asses down one by one, and you fuckwits let it happen because you were too damn busy kicking the shit out of each other to do a thing about it!” Her voice began to slowly climb in volume. “Napthene’s tits, people! One girl—one!—against two dozen, and there you all lie, looking stupid. Do you not comprehend the sheer, epic scale of your own dipshittery? Can you even wrap your heads around the scope of your failure? If anybody had told me last year I’d ever meet a whole town full of men who suck as hard as you assholes I’d have busted him in the lip for lying to me.”

“Now, hold on,” Jonas Hesse started.

Ruda, who was currently facing the other direction, flung out an arm to point at him without looking. “You get one pass because I feel sorry for you numbnuts. Next man who interrupts me, I’m gonna go over there and he can say his piece to my face.”

Silence fell again. Even the whimpering stopped.

“Well? Any takers?” She waited for a few seconds, but nobody offered comment. “Fine. This catastrophic ass-kicking is a lesson, boys. The White Riders have been doing this exact shit to you for months now, and you’ve let ’em get away with it because you let ’em turn you against each other. If just half of you witless fucksticks had quit trying to bash each other and turned on the person actually attacking you just now, I’d be the one lyin’ bleeding on the floor. If you’d put your tiny dicks back in your pants instead of waving ’em at each other and turned all this energy against the Riders back when they started being a problem, they wouldn’t fucking be one now!”

“That don’t change the facts!” Jacob Strickland piped up, leaning on a young man’s shoulder. “We got Riders and Rider sympathizers in our own ranks, ready to turn on us. How’re we supposed to fight ’em like that?”

He actually tried to back away as Ruda whirled and stomped toward him. She came to a stop two feet from him, grabbed a fistful of his long beard and yanked his head down till he was closer to her eye level.

“You wanna bitch and moan, that’s on you,” she said, her voice low but still echoing throughout the chamber. “But if you insult my intelligence again, I will stuff you head-first up your own ass and roll you from here to the Rail platform. Got it?” She released him and gave him a none-too-gentle shove in the chest, turning her back and stalking toward the center as the younger man barely managed to keep Strickland from falling. “Yeah, so you’ve got Riders in your midst. So what? So fucking goddamn what? What’re they gonna do, blow their cover the second you turn your back? Worst thing they can do is get in one good hit, and then you’d know who they are and could deal with ’em. You should be so fucking lucky as to hope they’re that fucking stupid—which, obviously, they aren’t, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation! I am sick of you dipshits and your excuses. The truth is, you just want to fight each other and you’ll grasp at any little pretext to do that instead of solving your own, actual fucking problems! Well?” She turned in a full circle, glaring furiously around the room. “Well?! Deny it!”

Silence.

“You’re prisoners in your own homes,” she bellowed. “You families are one more bad week from starving. You can’t walk your own streets, can’t live your own lives. Your town is on the edge of annihilation. Everything you have worked for has been torn down and shat on by the White Riders. Haven’t you had enough?!”

To Trissiny’s amazement, there actually came a rumble of assent this time. Expressions were growing grim and angry again, but for a wonder, they weren’t turned on each other.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ruda said in a sneering mockery of contrition. “Here I thought I was addressing the men of Sarasio, when it turns out I’ve wandered into a rehearsal of the Tiraas Ladies’ Auxiliary Bake Sale Choir. I said: HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH?!”

She finished on a roar that rattled the remaining windows in their frames, and this time, the men roared back, a wordless bellow of outrage and assent. Trissiny tightened her grip on her sword, keenly aware that she was in a room with a bunch of men being deliberately whipped into a frenzy.

“Are you going to let these bastards do this to you?”

“NO!” they bellowed in near unison.

“Are you going to take this any more?!”

“NO!!”

“Are you going to let your families, your whole town, just die because a bunch of assholes in bedsheets like feeling powerful?!”

This time, the roar of negation barely qualified as a word. Still, Ruda managed to raise her own voice above the noise.

“Or are you going to march out there, find those goddamn Riders, and PUT THEM IN THE GROUND?!”

Fists were shaken, faces twisted into animalistic snarls, weapons—both actual wands and hatchets and various pieces of furniture—brandished. Paxton had eased over and now placed himself behind Trissiny, ready to bolt through the door at an instant’s notice. Gabriel had also slipped backward and lurked now in the doorway, keeping an eye on the street.

“Are you victims?” Ruda thundered, wild-eyed, pumping a fist in the air, “OR ARE YOU MEN?”

The noise quite literally shook the floorboards, and this time it didn’t stop. The men kept up a continuous bellow of fury as Ruda made a circuit around the room, shouting incoherently and exchanging thumps and shoves with everyone she came close enough to touch.

Toby finally rejoined them, looking as tense and displeased at these events as Trissiny felt. She carefully eased backward, pushing Paxton and Gabriel a step closer to the door.

The men carried on shouting and gesticulating even after Ruda stopped riling them, now turning to each other, shaking hands, slapping backs, exchanging bellowed exhortations. Amazingly, they mingled without any regard for family affiliation. Even the four patriarchs had grouped themselves together, clasping arms with grim-faced determination. They seemed a bit more restrained than their kin, though, shooting glances at Ruda’s back as she strolled, grinning, over to rejoin her companions.

“Toby, my man,” she said, slugging him in the shoulder. She kept her voice at a normal conversational level, which, given the noise in the room, was as good as a whisper for ensuring their privacy. “No offense, but you don’t understand how the common man thinks.”

“There is a difference,” he said grimly, “between relating to common folk and inciting a riot.”

“Yep, there surely is,” she said easily, nodding. “But funny enough, you need the one to do the other. And cut that shit out,” she added with a scowl as he reached a glowing hand toward her. “I need those bruises for credibility. You can do your paladin thing after the big fight.”

“Ruda,” he said wearily, “I’ve been healing you the whole time. I don’t care how badass you are, one woman doesn’t take on a whole bar and walk away without help. You were stabbed twice. Remember when I grabbed your arm? That’s because it was broken.”

“What? Don’t be stupid, it was just a bruise.”

“Forearms aren’t supposed to bend in the middle!”

“Maybe yours aren’t.” She grinned insanely at him. “I’m Punaji. We don’t fuck around.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” he exclaimed.

“That’s okay, I still like you. Heywood, my sword?”

The Surveyor handed the weapon over, his eyes darting around the aggressive crowd. “Not to disparage your work, Princess, but, ah… Should you perhaps contain this? Or at least direct it? This kind of thing can go very bad, very quickly.”

“Yeah, I’m gonna.” Ruda finished buckling the rapier’s scabbard back to her belt and planted her fists on her hips, looking around the room at her handiwork. “Timing’s a factor. Don’t wanna let ’em tire themselves out or start brawling again, but I need to give the Riders in the audience a minute to slip out the back.”

“Wait, what?” Toby exclaimed. “Don’t we want to keep them pinned down where they can’t act?”

“No, she’s right,” Trissiny said grudgingly. “The whole point of this is to force the Riders to move, so we can hit them back. Now the ones in this group will know we’re coming for them with the whole town behind us. They’re pretty well forced; to take advantage of that, though, we need to give them a chance to warn their fellows.”

“See?” Ruda grinned. “She gets it.”

“That said,” Trissiny went on grimly, “we do need to control this quickly. A mob is like a rabid animal: if we can’t target them at the actual enemy, there’s no telling what they’ll destroy.”

“Yeah, about that.” Gabriel was leaning half-out the doorway, staring down the street outside. “That won’t be a problem.”


 

“You didn’t notice I was gone?” Darling asked, peeved in spite of himself.

“Oh, don’t get your bloomers in a twist,” Basra said. “That’s classic witchcraft. Redirecting attention, inducing emotional states… We really should’ve been on guard for that, though. Divine magic is a very good counter for it.”

“And so we must be, going forward,” said Andros firmly, scowling more than usual. “I do not like that this Crow woman is taking aggressive action against us. We had best be prepared to deal with her decisively.”

“Ah, granted I only know about her what was in Basra’s report,” Branwen said somewhat timidly, “but… I don’t think Mary the Crow is the kind of person who gets decisively dealt with.”

“She clearly has considerable sources of information to have learned what we are doing,” said Andros, turning his glower on Darling. “You are certain you told her no more than what you related to us?”

“Positive, but that may be beside the point,” he replied. “She clearly knew a lot going in. There’s no telling how much, or from what source.”

“Mm.” Basra was gazing into space, rubbing her lips absently with a thumb. “She was always one of my top suspects… Both in terms of the level of her power and her established patterns. Moving against us strongly supports that theory. From what Antonio’s told us, though, she seemed uncertain. As if she were trying to figure out who knew what, who had done what.”

“That could mean either that she’s not involved, or that she is,” Andros growled. “Either way, she’s used what amounts to mind control on a Bishop of the Church. That is an automatic death sentence.”

“Oh, come on,” Darling exclaimed, “she’s Mary the freakin’ Crow. An absurdly overpowered, self-declared enemy of the state. Her existence is an automatic death sentence; if the Empire were able to put her down it would’ve done so years ago.”

A tense, glum silence fell over the table.

They were meeting in one of the Cathedral’s smaller conference rooms, much less lavish than the one in the Archpope’s personal suite. It was late, well past midnight; most of the rest of the Church’s headquarters was asleep, like the city itself. It had taken considerable time for Darling’s messages to reach their recipients and bring them back here, Branwen having been the last to arrive by a wide margin. He wondered sourly how long it had taken her to do her hair; it had been uncomfortable sitting with Basra and Andros, both of them surly from the interrupted night’s sleep, without explaining the details of his adventure while they waited for her. They well understood his desire not to have to go over it twice, but the pair of them hardly needed a reason to be grouchy around each other to begin with.

The Archpope was secluded in prayer, according to the Holy Legion officer guarding his chambers, and could not be disturbed. They would have to settle for reporting in tomorrow. It was looking increasingly like it’d be a long night.

“Then,” Andros said finally, “the question is this: What are we going to do about the Crow?”

“The more immediate question is whether she’s responsible for the killings,” Basra shot back, rubbing irritably at her eyes with her fists. “That makes a difference in how we proceed.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Andros retorted. “She’s attacked Antonio. That makes her an enemy.”

“Whoah, whoah!” Darling held up his hands peaceably. “Not attacked! Here I am, fit as a fiddle; believe me, if I tangled with the Crow I wouldn’t have walked away. She wanted to talk. Frankly, I think we should encourage this. Fighting her is just plain not gonna be feasible.”

“You propose to let that woman walk all over us?” Andros snarled.

“I propose to investigate,” Basra chimed in, then stifled a yawn. “We need data before we act! Gods, it’s too late to have this conversation…”

“Maybe we should adjourn till tomorrow?” Branwen suggested. “Then we’ll be fresher, and we can include his Holiness in the discussion.”

“We should sleep while the Crow runs loose?” Andros’s sneer was visible even through his beard.

“Timing is, indeed, a factor,” Mary said solemnly, resting her chin on her interlaced fingers. “While you sit here talking, an opportunity is about to slip away.”

Dead silence fell, the four Bishops turning in their seats to stare at her. Mary the Crow sat at the head of the table, watching them with an aloof little smile.

“Okay,” Basra said at last. “Not gonna lie, I’m impressed.”

“Ah, ah,” Mary said firmly as Andros started to rise, reaching a hand toward his belt. “Sit, boy. There is no need for hostility.”

“You’ve been there the entire time, haven’t you,” Darling said resignedly. “Otherwise, Andros would’ve sat at the head.”

“Very good, Antonio,” she replied with a smile. “You continue to display a keen eye for details and personalities. That’s why you’re my favorite.”

“Whoopee,” he said sourly.

Branwen cleared her throat. “You mentioned an opportunity?”

“Quite so.” Mary straightened, separating her hands and resting one on the table. “There have been, to date, twenty-eight executions of high-profile priests in the city, all within the last few weeks.”

Darling managed not to react. Twenty-eight? That was off from Flora and Fauna’s count. The number should be lower. If they’d been going off on their own again…

“One of those has just been committed,” the Crow continued, “and will not be discovered, in all likelihood, until dawn. The person responsible is still in the city, and can still be confronted if you move quickly.”

“Who?” Basra demanded.

“You would know him as the Jackal.”

She grimaced, as did Darling. The Jackal was a fully non-magical foe, but several orders of magnitude more dangerous than Oz the Beater had been, by virtue of being an elf. Fast, agile, stealthy…and sadistic. So much for working gradually up the list.

“You claim he is responsible for all these murders?” Andros growled, so physically tense in his seat he seemed almost ready to erupt.

“For this most recent one, at least,” Mary replied with unflappable calm. “He is not expecting any kind of intervention; in fact, he has no reason to think he has been discovered.”

“And yet, you have?” Basra said wryly.

Mary nodded, smiling. “I rarely choose to announce my presence. Among other benefits, this often means I know a great deal more about my surroundings than anyone expects. In this case, I can tell you where the Jackal is. Apprehend him, and you may just learn how many of these assassinations are his doing.” Her smile widened. “And at whose behest.”

“Unless, of course, this is an obvious trap,” Andros snarled.

Mary held up her right hand, palm out. “By my totem spirit, may my bond with the earth be forsworn if I deceive thee, I swear that I have told you nothing but the truth, and intend to lead you toward enlightenment, and not harm.” She lowered her hand, leaning back slightly in her chair. “Of course, he is the jackal. Pursuing dangerous prey means that harm is more than possible.”

“What was that, exactly?” Basra asked, her eyes narrowed.

“An oath not lightly broken,” Andros rumbled. “…I am satisfied, at least, as to her intentions.”

“You are?” she said, visibly surprised.

“The Huntsmen are acquainted with the ways of the wild. We must deal regularly with elven witches.”

“She’s not hostile toward us,” Branwen added, watching the Crow carefully. Mary turned the smile on her, blinking her eyes languidly.

Darling sighed. “Are we in any shape to go chasing after someone like the Jackal right now?”

“As to that, I can offer you a little aid. A token of good faith.” Mary lifted her left hand from below the level of the table, opened it palm-up, then blew across it. Nothing visible flew outward from her hand, but a gentle scent like herbs and clean water flowed briefly through the room.

Darling unconsciously straightened in his chair, fatigue draining away, leaving him feeling alert and fresh as a daisy. Around the table, the others perked up visibly as well, then exchanged a round of uncertain glances.

“A little warning before you do witchcraft at us would be appreciated,” Basra said testily.

“Of course,” Mary said noncommittally. “Now, we had best move. I will guide you to your quarry, but it will be up to you to bring him down. Alive, remember, or he’s no use to us. I’ll find you outside.”

The black bird let out a hoarse caw, flapping across the room, then slipped out through the upper window which Darling was sure had not been left open when they came in.

“Well, what the hell.” Basra pushed back from the table, standing. “I’m going to swing by the Avenist shrine and arm myself. Meet you lot out front; don’t start without me.”

“Not how I expected to spend the evening,” Branwen murmured, also rising and following the others. Andros had stood and strode toward the door without further comment.

Darling trailed along in the rear, considering the situation and not liking the way it looked. More murders than his girls had committed? And now he was being sent off to confront the person responsible without having them there to watch his back—at the behest of the Crow, no less. He had thought her not guilty of any of the assassinations, knowing their source as he did, but if there were other parties getting in on the action, everything was thrown into doubt.

One thing was certain, though: Mary knew who had carried out the bulk of the killings, and knew that he had ordered them. Her say-so might not be enough to convict him, but it would certainly start the ball rolling, and she had every reason to think of him as a threat. Now, she was guiding him and the other three Bishops toward some revelation of her own design.

Whatever he was heading toward, it wasn’t likely to be good for him.

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4 – 12

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“I just wish you’d at least take somebody with you, ma’am. Believe me, I understand not wantin’ to be cooped up in here anymore, but that’s exactly why it ain’t safe to just take off, with the town the way it is.”

“You’re a sweet boy, Joe,” Lily said fondly, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Much too good for the lady you’ve got your eye on. But don’t you worry about little ol’ me. If I were worried about my safety, you can bet I wouldn’t be going.”

“Seriously, she’ll be fine,” Tellwyrn said dryly. “If anything, her leaving just means we’ll miss out on the accidental hilarity of somebody trying to harm her. I’m a little perplexed, though, Lil. It’s not like you to take off in the middle of the action.”

“Oh, this is far from the middle, Arachne,” Lily said, smirking at her. “Anyway, it’s not that I’m not interested in seeing how your little field trip goes, but an old acquaintance of ours has started sniffing around. One I’d rather not have a confrontation with at this time.”

Tellwyrn narrowed her eyes. “Oh? Who?”

“Don’t you fret your pretty head about it, dear. He was always fond of you anyway.”

The Professor’s nostrils flared in irritation, but she didn’t rise to the bait. “Be that as it may, I meant that when you vanish, you usually do just that. It’s the bothering to say goodbye that’s out of character.”

“Really, Arachne. Just because you have no regard for the most basic social graces doesn’t mean nobody else does.”

Lily picked up her carpet bag and strolled toward the door with an entirely unnecessary sway to her movements that commanded everyone’s attention. To her customary scarlet dress she had added an old-fashioned traveling cloak in deep crimson, and now pulled up the hood over her dark hair as she reached the exit. Pausing at the threshold, she half-turned to look back at those assembled.

“Bit of advice, kids,” she said. “A little less enthusiasm, a little more finesse. Toodles!” Wiggling her fingers flirtatiously, she turned and departed, leaving a momentary silence behind her.

“Didn’t she say she was pregnant?” Gabriel asked finally. “Sure doesn’t look it.”

Tellwyrn snorted and stomped over toward the bar.

“I wonder just who that woman really was,” Trissiny said slowly.

“She’s either pretty badass or a fucking idiot, goin’ out there alone,” Ruda agreed. “I mean, what’s she gonna do? Just walk out into the prairie? Try to flag down a caravan? The speed those things travel, I doubt the enchanter driving could even see someone waving.”

“There’s that,” Trissiny said, still frowning at the door, “and the fact that Professor Tellwyrn allowed her to talk to her that way. That’s what throws me off.”

The students, as well as Joe and Jenny, glanced in unison over at the bar, where Tellwyrn was now nursing a whiskey and ostentatiously ignoring them.

“Well,” Toby said after a pause. “I guess there’s no use putting it off. Everything ready, Robin?”

The elf shrugged. “They all know the time and place. I can’t guarantee everyone will turn up, but it’s not like there’s much else for them to do in this town these days. Most of the families are as fortified as they can get inside their homes; even tending their kitchen gardens is risky. Of course, I asked their wives to lean on them a bit, too,” she added with a grin. “That should improve the turnout.”

“Okay,” he said, nodding. “We’d better move out, then.”

“Just a moment, if I may.”

They turned in surprise at the voice, beholding Heywood Paxton approaching from the stairs to the upper floor, where the private rooms were. He looked much better, with none of the reddened eyes and nose that indicated he’d been at the bottle again. The man had lost weight, and his suit hung on him somewhat loosely, but it looked clean and freshly pressed nonetheless, and the silver gryphon badge of his office gleamed with fresh polish.

“High time this old fool started doing his duty to his Emperor,” he said, head high. “My friends, I thank you not only for coming to the aid of this town, but also for jostling me out of my stupor. You may count on Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor, to do his part.”

“I’m…not sure that’s such a great idea,” Joe said carefully. “You’re a big target, Mr. Paxton.”

“Less so that previously, my boy,” the Surveyor replied with a grin, patting his somewhat diminished paunch.

“You know what I mean,” replied the Kid, his expression growing drawn. “You’re a high priority for the Riders. They can’t have an official Imperial report getting back to Tiraas.”

“And that is precisely what I must accompany this expedition,” he replied, turning to face the students again. “Pardon me for eavesdropping, but there’s precious little else to do around here except drink, and I believe I’ve done far more than my share of that lately. As I grasp it, my friends, your plan is, in part, to provoke a response from the Riders Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Gabe said thoughtfully. “And…yes, you’re right that having you along would be even better bait…”

“I don’t like that at all,” Jenny said, eyes wide. “Heywood, no offense, but you’re no wandfighter. This is too risky. It’s crazy.”

“Ah, but I hardly expect to have to do my own wandfighting,” said Paxton with a grin. “I’ll be with a whole party of heroes! Paladins, clerics, dryads, wizards, even a bard! Safe as houses, I’m sure.”

“Having to look after a civilian does alter the equation somewhat,” said Shaeine. “I am confident that we can protect ourselves from attack, but… On this matter I defer to more tactical minds.”

“It’s doable,” Trissiny said immediately, then turned a sharp stare on Paxton. “Provided that the civilian in question strictly follows orders and stays far from the front lines when combat breaks out.”

“My word on it, Ms. Avelea,” he said, nodding firmly.

“Then it’s up to the healers; they’ll be the ones having to stretch their capacity by an extra head. Shaeine?”

“Ah, let me just cut in here,” said Gabriel. “It’d be better if he went with our group rather than Shaeine’s. An Imperial Surveyor has some official rank that may help us impress the townsfolk. The elves, on the other hand…”

“…may interpret an official Imperial presence as aggressive,” Shaeine finished. “That is a solid point.”

“I thought your whole plan for the grove was to try to agitate them out of their complacency,” said Robin. “That’d be a start.”

“I’d rather appeal to reason and higher virtues first,” said Teal. “If it does come to agitating, well, it’s probably better not to put them on the defensive the moment we walk in. They may already be annoyed with us for showing up a second day in a row. I think a lot of ’em were glad to see us leave the last time.”

“I will, of course, yield to your strategic expertise,” said Paxton, “but quite frankly I’m not sure I’d be much use in dealing with elves. Imperial citizens, now, those I know just how to motivate.”

“That’s settled, then. Right?” Teal looked around for objections. “Right. Okay, then, all we’ll have to do is try to jostle a bunch of hidebound immortals who don’t think our opinions are worth a squirrel’s fart. No problem.”

“You’ve been in this town too long,” Ruda said, grinning. “You’re picking up the vernacular.”

Teal rolled her eyes. “Robin, any guesses how many of the elves hate humans as much as your sister does? If they have a majority, this is pretty much hopeless.”

Robin barked a laugh. “If you mean how many of the elves are anti-human, it’s actually a pretty tiny minority. That’s not the problem. My sister, for your information, loves humans, in every conceivable sense of the word. She is throwing a sulk because her boyfriend’s family were rude to her—which, by the way, was entirely her own fault and has nothing to do with the Riders or anything else going on. That’s going to be the bigger part of the problem. Elves typically err on the side of caution and consistency. The current climate just exacerbates petty disagreements like that, gives leverage to the few who really don’t want to be involved in human affairs, and the whole thing is held down by our general tendency to stay put and wait for something to happen.” She shrugged expressively. “You’re not going to get all the elves behind you, no matter what you do. The trick will be getting enough to break with the group, which…isn’t something we like to do. Shake that complacency enough, though, and you just might walk out of there with some allies.”

“It is a start,” said Shaeine.

“It’ll have to do,” Teal agreed grimly.

“I’ll help,” Jenny said brightly. “I’m good at shaking things up.”

“Jenny,” Joe protested.

“Don’t you start with me, Mr. Jenkins,” she said, leveling a finger at him. “I told you I’m not one to just sit on my hands! I wasn’t about to go take on the White Riders myself, but if people are taking action, I’m in.” She turned back to the others, folding her arms. “And I know a thing or two about elves.”

“Well, we won’t turn down any help,” said Teal. “We’re not going to stop with the elves, though; the plan is to go after the Riders immediately after we finish whatever happens in the grove.” She sighed, glancing at Gabriel. “And, despite what I earnestly wish, I don’t think diplomacy is going to be in the cards, with them. You sure you’re up for that?”

Jenny cracked a lopsided grin. “I may have seen a little bit of action here and there. Don’t you worry about me.”

“Anybody else care to lend a hand?” Toby asked. “Joe? I don’t like the idea of fighting any more than Teal, here, but she’s right: it’s almost surely going to come down to that. An extra pair of wands would be helpful. Besides, you’re widely respected; you’d be a big help in getting people up off their butts.”

Joe shook his head. “My place is here.”

“He’s right,” said Gabriel. “Without him here, there’s nothing to stop the Riders from hitting the Lady as soon as we’re all gone. It’s the biggest holdout against them; burning it and scattering the people here would be their logical move if we left it undefended.” He nodded at Joe, who nodded back gravely.

“Very well, then,” said Trissiny, slinging her shield over her back with an air of finality. “Everyone knows their role. Let’s move out.”


 

Sunset made the streets of Sarasio positively spooky. It was a time when a town should ordinarily be winding down its business; subdued, but still alive, still active. In Sarasio, there was total silence. Orange light stained the pitted street and the dilapidated boards of the buildings lining it, but there was no one about, not so much as a horse or stray dog moving.

The total silence was made more ominous by what lay behind it. This was their third patrol in the streets surrounding the old barn, now converted to a tavern, in which the meeting was being held. On the first, they had been watched, carefully, from the shadows, but apparently word of Trissiny’s performance on their group’s first arrival in town had spread, and none had offered them a challenge. Now, even those dim shapes lurking in doorways and the mouths of alleys had vanished, leaving only the unnatural quiet.

And the prospect of a lightning bolt out of any window.

Gabriel froze as a clatter pierced the quiet, clutching his wand and pointing it first one way, then another, seeking the source of the disturbance. Seconds later, another soft sound followed it, this one clearly coming from a junk-filled alleyway nearby. Clutching the wand in both hands, he aimed it straight for the pile of broken furniture that clogged the narrow opening, then drew in a deep breath, steeling himself to call out a challenge.

He stumbled backward as a small heap of what looked to be barrel staves toppled, and a rabbit shot out of the alley, darting across the road and vanishing into the dried-out bushes opposite.

Gabe slowly let out the breath he’d drawn, some of the tension easing from his frame. He gave Trissiny a sour look.

“Don’t say a word.”

She shook her head. “Too easy.”

With a soft sigh on his part, they resumed their slow circuit.

“Relax,” she said in a low voice.

He gave her an irritated sidelong look. “How in the hell am I supposed to relax? We’re the worms on the end of a hook, here.”

“This was your plan, you know.”

“Yeah, well… It all sounds much less deadly from the comfort of a lavish…uh, brothel.”

“Anyway, I’m serious. You’re wasting energy by holding so much tension. You can most likely survive a wand shot, and I can shield myself.”

“Most likely,” he said sourly. “Could be better odds.”

“I should probably have said ‘almost certainly.’ Compared to what Vadrieny did to you, a bolt of lightning is nothing.”

The silence which ensued was even more strained. The pair of them walked, alone, down the center of the dusty street, eying their surroundings as much for the excuse of avoiding each other’s gaze as to keep watch for ambushers. They had managed, for the most part, not to discuss their brawl on campus and its aftermath; the subject was invariably awkward at the very least.

Turning a corner, they slowed slightly by unspoken consensus, passing the old barn. One of the few stone structures in a town mostly of wood, it, like the ruined one out behind the Shady Lady, had once been part of a farmstead before Sarasio had grown to encompass it. Lamplight blazed from its windows, now, along with the sound of voices. Specifically, the sound of arguing. Two men on either side of the broad front door, each holding staves, nodded at them. Trissiny nodded in return, Gabe saluting with his wand, and they continued along their route, gradually leaving behind the only sight ad sound of other life in the town, the oppressive silence falling around them again.

“They’ll be all right,” he said quietly, nodding at nothing. “Toby’s in there, and Mr. Paxton. If they can’t straighten those folks out, it can’t be done.”

“Ruda is also in there,” Trissiny said darkly. “She can create a fight out of thin air. I shudder to think was she can do from the middle of a whole web of petty vendettas.”

“I didn’t hear you nominating her to come on patrol with us.”

“Once again, you’re invulnerable, and I have defenses. Ruda would be felled instantly by a wandshot. She’s safer in there with the diplomats.” She grimaced, glancing around. “Though all this is for nothing if they can’t get at least most of those people working on the same page.”

“And Teal and Shaeine doing the same with the elves…” He kicked a stone out of the way, scowling after it. “And then we’re assuming the Riders will try something… And with the right timing, too… Augh, I’m an idiot. What was I thinking?”

“Don’t,” she said quietly, shaking her head. “Don’t second-guess yourself after the plan’s in motion. No strategy survives contact with the enemy. If it goes wrong, we’ll adapt.” He sighed, and they walked in silence for a while longer before she spoke again, even more quietly. “It is a good plan, Gabriel.”

He risked a glance at her; she was watching the road ahead. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Seriously? Have I ever gone out of my way to coddle your feelings? Can you imagine me doing that?”

“Fair enough,” he said sourly.

“We wouldn’t all have signed off on it if it weren’t solid. You’re not that persuasive a speaker. They Riders have to know what’s going on, and they have virtually no choice but to respond—and only one method they’re likely to use. The biggest risk is, as you said, the timing. If they strike before we can get in position… But then, most of this is getting these people to work together. An attack by an outside party is the best possible way to do that.” She nodded. “It’s a good plan.”

“What would you say,” he said thoughtfully, “if I told you Ruda’s smarter than any of us give her credit for?”

Trissiny raised her eyebrows, but still kept her attention on the street rather than on him. “I would ask what makes you think so.”

“I’m not sure I do.” He shook his head. “It’s just… A guy I met in the bordello said so.”

“Just…some guy? Someone who’s only seen us a few times, when we were mostly just squabbling?”

“Exactly. I’m not sure whether he was talking out of his ass, or if maybe his outsider opinion… That is, maybe he noticed something we’ve missed. She is royal. I mean, she has to have had training in politics and stuff.”

Trissiny shook her head. “What does it matter?”

“Just thinking out loud, I guess. The different kinds of intelligence. It’s been sort of on my mind, the last day or two, how a person can be really smart in one area and kind of an idiot in others.”

“You mean, the way you actually have a pretty strategic mind, apparently, but possess all the people skills of a billy goat?”

He grimaced. “Just for a completely random example, yeah, sure. Not that you’re one to criticize anybody’s people skills.”

She shrugged.

Gabe coughed softly. “You, uh…actually think I have a strategic mind, though?”

“Really?” She rolled her eyed. “Must we go over this again? I have no intention of stroking your ego, or anything else of yours.”

“Oh, ew. I just got the cold shivers. Don’t say things like that!”

“Yeah, that was ill-advised,” she agreed, twisting her lips in disgust.

“I just… Well, coming from you, ‘strategic’ is pretty high praise. I’m not used to high praise, uh… Coming from you.”

Trissiny shrugged again. “It’s fair. I’ve said your strategy was solid. And don’t forget, I’ve played you at chess, too.”

“Where you won two out of three games.”

“Do you really imagine I didn’t see what you were doing?” Finally, she glanced over at him, but only for a second. “The first two I won quickly, using two different strategies, while you played almost entirely reactive, defensive games. The last one you stretched out, using multiple, deep feints to counter the strategies you’d seen me use, and maneuvered me into exhausting my pieces while you set up a trap. That’s grand strategy, studying an opposing general’s patterns and thinking beyond the needs of the battle at hand. So yes, to my surprise, there does appear to be a highly functional brain lurking somewhere behind that mouth.”

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” he said modestly. “The way I was raised, it’s just good manners to let the lady win.”

She glanced at him again, eyes narrowed. “You are trying to make me stab you now, aren’t you?”

“Invulnerable, remember?”

“Specifically not against a blade crafted by Avei.”

“Well, that’s not really fair, then, is it? You’ve got all kinds of advantages over me in a fight. What say we move this back to the chessboard, next time we have a chance? Best three out of five?”

To her own surprise, Trissiny found herself grinning. “You’re on.”


 

It was out of the question, of course, if he was to keep any shred of control over this situation, but more and more, Toby wanted to plant his face in his hands and groan.

Well over two dozen men crowded the barn, coalesced into small clumps keeping a wary distance between each of them. Despite the palpable tension in the room, they were thankfully leaving one another alone, all their focus on the main table in the center, at which sat the heads of the four families, along with Toby, Ruda and Mr. Paxton. The Surveyor was doing his best to remain professional, but he had wisely left most of the talking to Toby, who actually had formal training in negotiation. Not in Shaeine’s league, of course, but diplomacy called heavily upon the virtues that Omnu sought to instill in his followers: patience, compassion, understanding, respect. Ruda leaned back in her chair, balancing it on its two back legs, her boots propped on the table. She was sipping intermittently from a bottle of whiskey, her hat pulled forward so that it mostly hid her eyes, and not contributing to the conversation. All things considered, Toby decided he was glad of that.

At least there was one thing to be glad of.

“All I’m sayin’ is, we need assurances,” Jonas Hesse said stridently. “Who knows what’ll get back to the Riders, all of us meetin’ like this? Nobody here’s exempt from suspicion!”

“Nobody ‘cept your boys, is what you mean,” snarled Jacob Strickland, the oldest of the four patriarchs at the table. His beard was short, but more gray than brown, and did little to add to his dignity. If anything, he did more shouting than any of the others. He did so now, thrusting a finger at Hesse. “Well? Ain’t it?”

“We all prob’ly suspect everybody else’s boys of bein’ in with the Riders,” said Lucas Wilcox, the youngest of the four, who was leaning back in his chair much like Ruda.

“Gentlemen,” Paxton tried for the third time in the last minute, but Hesse overrode him.

“Nobody calls my sons traitors!” he snarled, jerking to his feet and planting both fists on the table to glare at Wilcox.

“Oh, but you can say what you want about ours?” Ezekiel Conner snapped, folding his arms and glaring mulishly. “Just like a Hesse.”

“Oh, that’s it. You’re gonna eat them words, Ezekiel!”

“Yeah? I don’t see you makin’ me.”

“Gentlemen,” Toby said, much more loudly than Paxton—enough to grab their attention momentarily. “I know you all have issues to work out. Having everybody here at the table is an important first step. But with all due respect, this is not the time.” He held his arms out wide, as if to embrace the whole barn and the town beyond. “Look around you. Sarasio is dying. You—and your families—will die with it if you don’t do something about the White Riders! And to do that, you are going to have to put these vendettas aside and work together.” He leaned forward, trying to hold them still with the sheer intensity of his stare. “Peace takes time and effort to build. I’m not asking you all to suddenly forgive everything and embrace each other. But, just for a little while, please. Put it aside.”

“Ain’t that I don’t appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, kid,” said Wilcox, nodding to him. “And it ain’t even that you’re wrong. Fact is, though, you’re askin’ us to ride into what’s sure to be a firefight with the very real possibility of bein’ shot in the back.”

“The Riders know too much, we’ve seen it in the way they maneuver,” added Conner, still glaring at Hesse. “Somebody’s tippin’ ’em off. Several somebodies, ‘less I miss my guess.”

“I ain’t puttin’ my life on the line, and sure as hell not any of my family’s, until we straighten out just who the traitors are an’ deal with ’em,” Strickland declared. “An’ until these three dumbasses admit they’ve got Riders among their own families, that don’t look like it’s about to happen.”

“You shut yer foul mouth, Strickland!” Hesse roared, shooting back to his feet. “Your whole brood o’ weasels’re probably in league with the Riders! Hell, I bet you’re leadin’ the bastards yourself! You always did want more’n you deserved outta this town!”

“That does it!” squawked Strickland, also jerking upright. “I’m gonna hear an apology outta you if it’s the last thing you ever—”

Toby slapped both hands down hard on the table, startling them into momentary silence. “Please,” he implored, silently pouring more power into the calming aura he was using to keep this whole thing from exploding into violence. Already, it was a strain to keep enough concentration on that task while also trying to keep the conversation on target. He’d never been in a room with so may deep-seated resentments.

Into the brief quiet, Ruda snorted a laugh. “Listen to you guys. Everybody’s so sure that all the other families are corrupted. First step to dealing with this is you each admitting you’ve all got traitors in your midst.” She lifted her head, meeting their incredulous stares. “Every one of you.”

“Young lady,” Wilcox began.

“It’s Princess, if you wanna be formal. Me, I don’t. Formal doesn’t look good on me.” She jerked her boots off the table and let her chair thump to the ground, leaning forward to stare intently at them. “Use your goddamn heads, boys. Why would the Riders only infiltrate some of the clans populating this town? They need intel on everybody’s movements, or they’d never have been able to head off every effort you made to move against them.”

“Now, look here,” Conner began.

“Furthermore,” Ruda said doggedly, “look around you at what is happening right here, right now. You’re all about to rip each others’ fucking throats out. Is that normal? Is this what life was always like in this town? Or, if you think back carefully, do you find that stuff started getting real bad between you after the Riders started being a big problem?”

“What are you suggesting?” Hesse demanded.

“I’m suggesting the Riders in your ranks aren’t just passing information—they’re pitting you against each other. Think from their perspective: they can’t have the whole town uniting against them, which is the logical thing for a town full of sane fucking people to do when they’re basically under siege. You’ve all got the same damn problem. Now quit pointing fingers and fucking do something about it!”

“That’s all fine an’ dandy,” Strickland growled, “but it don’t change the problem. You wanna round up a posse and take on the Riders? Fine by me. Ain’t a man by the name of Strickland who’ll hang back if that’s what it’s gonna take to save our town. But the fact remains, we got bad apples in the bunch. We ride out, and our men’ll be vulnerable to fire from their own ranks!”

“She ain’t wrong, though,” Wilcox noted. “It ain’t just any one family’s problem.”

“What difference does it make?” Hesse demanded.

“It makes a difference,” Toby said firmly, “because you will all face the same peril together. Do you really believe there’s any way to do this without putting men in danger?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t lie to you, gentlemen, even if I thought you were naïve enough not to have realized the truth on your own: ride out to battle, and men will die. Right now, you are quibbling over the ways and means in which that might happen, and avoiding the larger truth.”

“You callin’ us yellow?” Strickland growled squinting at him.

“No!” He managed, barely, not to shout. Honestly, they were like children. “I’m pointing out that Ruda is right. You’ve been manipulated, gentlemen; someone has been trying to distract you, to focus your energies against each other.”

“Well, maybe our energies belong against each other!” Hesse shot back. “I ain’t seen one bit of evidence any man in my family’s sided with the Riders, and I’m not puttin’ any of ’em in harm’s way to save a bunch o’ chickenshit varmints who can’t keep order in their own clans!”

The whole table instantly dissolved into shouted pandemonium, the voices too loud and too rapid for any single thread to be clearly heard. All four men were on their feet, pointing and gesticulating at each other and growing increasingly red in the face. Now, other voices began contributing from all corners of the room, first shouting at the general mess at the round table, and then starting in on each other. Toby slumped back in his chair, rubbing his forehead; Paxton planted his elbows on the table, putting his face in his hands.

“Okay,” said Ruda, “this is bullshit.”

She stood up, tilted up the bottle of whiskey to gulp down the last of its contents, then hurled the empty bottle at Wilcox and punched Strickland in the jaw.

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4 – 3

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“Hi, Lily! I’m Fross!”

The others introduced themselves with a little less enthusiasm, still bemused by the situation. Lily greeted everyone politely, but with a grin that Trissiny couldn’t help feeling was rather predatory.

“And this,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “is Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” Paxton simply stared at the center of the table; her brows drew together. “Hey!”

He jumped, finally raising his eyes; they were notably bloodshot. “Oh! I’m sorry, drifted off… Ah, yes, hello, everyone. New faces, how good to…” Paxton trailed off, catching sight of Trissiny. His eyes widened, and to her surprise, he looked downright crestfallen. “Why, Ms. Avelea, we meet again. I dearly wish it was under better circumstances.”

“I’m afraid I don’t quite know what the circumstances are,” she said carefully. Several things about this situation were giving her a very uneasy feeling.

The boy next to Tellwyrn had stood, and now bowed to them. “Joe Jenkins. Right pleased to make your acquaintance, all of you. And it is, of course, an honor to meet the great Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh, gods, don’t do that,” Ruda groaned. “Her head is swollen beyond capacity as it is; you’ll rupture her or something.”

“I assure you, Miss Punaji, my ego reached its maximum capacity long before your ancestors crawled out of the muck and hasn’t wavered since,” Tellwyrn said with one of her wolfish grins. “Now, we’ve some things to discuss; Mr. Paxton and…Lily…” She shot the woman a distinctly unfriendly look. “…have found themselves trapped by circumstance, but Joseph, here, is a longtime resident of the town, and has agreed to help fill you in on the situation. From there, we shall proceed to what I expect you to do.”

“Happy to oblige,” said Joe. He spoke with the drawling inflection common to prairie folk, but seemed both polite and articulate. There was a world-weary intelligence well beyond his years on his face.

“So,” Tellwyrn went on, “assuming our hosts don’t mind us rearranging a bit, everybody squeeze in. Pull over some chairs and let’s all have a sit down.”

“Hang on,” Gabriel said suddenly, staring at the boy. “Joe Jenkins? As in Joseph P. Jenkins?”

“The same,” he replied dryly. “I gather you’ve heard of me.”

“Holy shit,” Gabe breathed. “You’re the Sarasio Kid!”

“Let’s watch our language, shall we?” Joe said coolly. “There are ladies present.”

“Does he mean us?” Ruda stage-whispered to Trissiny. “Boy’s in for an epic letdown.”

“Oh, uh, sorry,” Gabriel said distractedly. “I just… I mean, I’m a little taken aback. You’re, uh… I pictured… You’re so…”

“Fifteen,” said Joe, now smiling faintly. “As of last month. And now you know why the bards don’t sing the legend of That Guy from Sarasio.”

“Oh… I just figured they called you that because you were twelve when you wiped out Hoss Calhoun and his gang.”

“Eleven, actually, but that is essentially the case. It was a little over three years ago.”

“Da—ang,” Gabriel caught himself, barely. Joe smiled, his dark eyes glittering with amusement. Truly, he only looked youthful until one looked into those eyes. “Seems like it’d take longer than that for a legend to spread.”

“Once upon a time, yeah,” said Teal. “But now we’ve got scrolltowers, newspapers, mass-printed novels and comics… Truly, we live in an age of wonders.”

“All of which is very fascinating,” Tellwyrn said in a bored tone, “but I note that none of you are pulling over chairs and sitting down. If you really want to stand around uncomfortably, that’s your lookout, but I’m not best pleased at my instructions being ignored.”

“You have such a way with people, Arachne,” Lily murmured, smiling coquettishly. Tellwyrn just stared at her through narrowed eyes.

“So…you two know each other?” Toby asked, pulling over a chair.

“Oh, we go way back,” Lily purred. “In fact, Arachne had just sent me a little note a few weeks ago suggesting we ought to catch up! I’m afraid I just haven’t had the time to sit down and arrange something—busy busy, you know how it is. But, fortuitously, here we all are! Isn’t it funny how life works, sometimes?”

“Funny,” Tellwyrn said, deadpan. “Fortuitous. In any case, Lily, I am here with my students on a matter relevant to their education. I will have to object in the strongest possible terms if they are in any way interfered with.”

Tension gathered around the table; Tellwyrn stared at the woman in red with a cold intensity that spoke of deep hidden meanings. Lily, however, seemed completely unaffected, waving a hand airily.

“Oh, honestly, you silly goose, why would I meddle with your students? I’m not one to enjoy being cooped up, but this really is a lovely place; I’m not nearly that bored. Since none of us is going anywhere immediately, surely we can find a moment to ourselves to chat.”

“We aren’t going anywhere?” Juniper tilted her head quizzically. “Why not?”

“Hey there, neighbors,” said a new arrival before anybody could answer her. They twisted in their chairs to behold a young woman with short dark hair approaching, carrying a large tray weighted down with glasses and two carafes of water. “Welcome to the Shady Lady! Drinks are on the house—I’m afraid food is strictly rationed, so if you want to graze socially all we’ve got is water and a prodigious collection of booze.” She sidled in between Toby and Ruda, laying the tray down on the table. “Joe, I know you don’t drink. Any other takers…?”

“Take note of the new faces,” said Tellwyrn. “They are not to have alcohol while they’re here.”

“Duly noted. Heywood? Lily?”

“I’ll spare you having to ask again every time, dear,” Lily said cheerily, patting her belly. “None of the hard stuff for me. I’m expecting.”

“Oh, by all the gods in heaven,” Tellwyrn groaned, covering her eyes with a hand and causing one earpiece of her spectacles to come loose and stick out at a crazy angle.

“Congratulations, Lil!” the girl said brightly, beaming. “I’m sorry you got stuck in this hole of a town at a time like this.”

“Not at all, dear. Believe me, I’ve been in worse places.”

“I’ll have the usual, please, Jenny,” Paxton said wearily. She gave him a concerned look, which he seemed not to notice.

“You’re, uh, the waitress?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Wow, not what I’d have expected for a place like this. You look more like an adventurer, to be honest.”

“Thanks!” Jenny said brightly, winking at him. In fact, she wore a leather jacket over a sturdy ensemble of shirt, trousers and boots, with a long scarf wound about her neck and a pair of goggles perched atop her head. “I am an adventurer, truth be told. But, well…here we all are. I hate just twiddling my thumbs; serving drinks is something to do. Makes people happy, y’know?”

“Heh. Happy,” Paxton muttered, staring at the tablecloth.

“Okay, that’s the second time in two minutes,” said Ruda, scowling. “Why the hell does everyone act like this place is some kind of prison?”

“I’ll…just go get Heywood’s drink,” Jenny said, edging away.

“If we’re all settled, then?” Tellwyrn readjusted her spectacles and looked around at them. “Good. Joseph, if you would be so kind?”

“Ma’am,” he said politely, nodding to her. “I assume, neighbors, that Robin brought in in through one of her careful routes, so I couldn’t say how much of the town you’ve seen. But even a casual look should be enough to tell you this place has gone right to the dogs.”

“Actually, she took us right through the main streets!” said Fross. “Some men tried to rob us or something and Trissiny broke a guy’s hand.”

“Robin,” Tellwyrn exclaimed, exasperated. “Seriously?!”

The other elf hadn’t joined them in sitting; she leaned her hip against a nearby table, watching the group with her arms folded. At being addressed she shrugged, looking as unperturbed as ever. “Talk is fine, but nothing beats a visual demonstration. If you’re going to drop eight kids in a place like this, they deserve to see what they’re getting into. Also, I figured it’d help matters here if it was quickly understood that the new arrivals are not to be trifled with. That succeeded a bit more than I expected, actually. This one’s got quite a flair for the dramatic,” she added, nodding at Trissiny.

“These men who accosted you,” Joe said, his eyes sharp. “How were they dressed?”

“Uh…not very noticeably?” Gabriel said hesitantly. “Shirts, pants… A little scruffy, but nothing that caught my attention.”

“Good,” said Joe, nodding. “There’d be trouble if you’d run into… Well. We’ll get to that in a moment. The reason the food is being parceled out and we’re all drinking water is this town does not have any kind of functioning economy at the moment. Goods and services are effectively shut down; money is so much dead weight. We’re at the point of nothing but food and a few bare essentials being worth our notice. The Shady Lady is… Well, not so much a prison as a fortress. One of very few decent places left in Sarasio, and the only one that could be called remotely safe.”

“The bordello is the last decent place?” said Ruda, raising her eyebrows. “Damn. This place must be pretty fucked up.”

A fleeting expression flickered across Joe’s face, as if he wanted to wince but wouldn’t be so rude. “That’s…a fair assessment. Let me start at the beginning, then.” As he spoke, he began deftly shuffling the deck of cards under his hand. “As little as a year ago, Sarasio was a prosperous town with an adventurer-based economy, much like most of the more significant frontier outposts. You know the type, I’m sure, being from Last Rock. There were shops and amenities catering to those launching expeditions into the Golden Sea, and those returning from it.”

Paxton stirred himself as Jenny returned, reaching up to take a glass of amber liquid from her without even looking. “It was quite the boom town, in fact,” he said, then tossed back the drink. Jenny stood behind him, grimacing with obvious concern, but he paid her no mind. “That’s why the Rail platform is so infernally far away. It was meant to give the town room to expand, and also grant a measure of access to the nearby elf grove that wouldn’t make the inhabitants come into town if they’d rather not.” He fell silent abruptly, staring down at the now-empty glass in his fingers.

“All that aside,” Joe went on slowly, “Sarasio’s always been a little…corrupt. More or less harmlessly so, for most of its history. The Sheriff, the mayor and most of the richer folk were good ol’ boys, looking out for each other. It was inconvenient, but I’m told not much worse than that for some years. At least, until Hoss Calhoun and his gang set up shop in the area.”

His eyes narrowed and he glared down at the cards, now flashing through his fingers at blinding speed. “I don’t rightly know what manner of hold Calhoun had on the Sheriff and the powers that be, but a blind eye was turned to his activities, even when they started…crossing lines. This wasn’t a matter of waived fines and selective enforcement of tax laws anymore; they were robbing and worse, all across the area, and Sheriff Yates wouldn’t touch ’em. Well… To cut a long story short, I put a stop to all that.”

“That actually sounds like a pretty damn good story,” Ruda said.

“It’s been written down enough times,” Joe said almost curtly. “What matters for our purposes is that the immediate problem of the Calhoun gang was solved, but there was still a town run by a cozy cadre of backroom dealers, and after a few months of borderline terror, everybody had a lot less of a sense of humor about it. Yates decided to let me be and I returned the favor, provided he didn’t go overboard.”

“Why?” asked Toby.

Joe finally stopped shuffling, and began rapidly laying down a game of solitaire. He kept his eyes on this as he spoke. “If you only know how that question has hovered over me. I could’ve probably warded off a lot of what’s happened to this town if I’d been a bit more proactive… But things were simple, for a while. Never seemed to me that doing favors for your friends and leaning a bit too hard on the taxpayers were the kinds of offenses that warranted getting’ shot dead in the street. Conversely, the Sheriff wasn’t eager to start trouble up with the kid he’d just seen take down nine grown men with wands.”

“You did fucking what?” Ruda exclaimed. “How is that mathematically possible?!”

“Have you seriously never heard of the Sarasio Kid?” Gabriel asked her.

“Arquin, I’m Punaji. We have different heroes. Have you ever heard of Anjal the Sea Devil?”

“…okay, point taken.”

“It was a comfortable little truce,” Joe went on, ignoring the byplay. “I could’ve blasted him and his whole social circle to Hell—pardon my language, ladies—but on the other hand, he could’ve called down Imperial help, bein’ that I was technically an outlaw by virtue of multiple manslaughter.”

“Sounds like that was pretty obviously self-defense,” Toby noted.

“Oh, sure, I probably would’ve won that in court,” Joe said with a shrug. “My policy on court, though, is not to go if you don’t absolutely need to. So things continued much as they were…which was the problem. Yates never did get it through his head that folk just didn’t have the same patience for his games as they had before. If he’d been smart, he’d’ve backed off a bit and reined in his cronies. He wasn’t smart. And that’s what brought us the White Riders.”

Mr. Paxton heaved a heavy sigh and raised his glass. “Jenny? Another, if you please?”

“Heywood, don’t you think you’ve had enough?” she replied, placing her hands on his shoulders from behind.

He grunted a bitter little stump of a laugh. “That and more, long since. I may’s well do my part to hold down the floorboards, my girl. Seems all I’m good for, after all.”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk,” she said firmly. “C’mon, it’s barely past breakfast. Let that settle for a while. Look, we’ve got help finally! Stay and maybe you can help Joe lay out the details.”

Paxton grunted again, staring morosely at the tablecloth. The students exchanged a round of glances.

“You’d know ’em if you’d seen ’em,” Joe continued. “They dress in white, as the name suggests. Robes and hoods—they look almost ecclesiastical. They started interfering anonymously with the folks running the town, and… Well, you don’t really care about the whole story nor need to know. End of the day, we had a corrupt office of law run by a man who refused to back down, and now a gang of vigilantes who also wouldn’t back down. It came to shootin’, inevitably. This place starting going downhill fast when the Sheriff was killed. The mayor went not long after, and then they started in on the landowners and cattle barons, everybody who’d wielded influence in Sarasio. Even patrolled the Rail platform to make sure none of ’em could get away and report what was happening here to the Empire.”

“And the scrolltower?” Trissiny asked.

Joe nodded. “Yup, that was their work too. Only took ’em a couple months to eliminate everybody who’d been involved in oppressing Sarasio. Amazingly enough,” he added bitterly, “things did not get better at that point.”

“It’s the story of most political revolutions everywhere,” said Tellwyrn. “A corrupt system is still a system. It knows how to run things. People who rise up and kill the rulers don’t necessarily know anything about ruling and frequently acquire a taste for blood in the process. All they know how to do is destroy those who oppose them…”

“Which,” Joe finished, nodding, “was what they continued to do. The results are as you see them now. Sarasio’s crawlin’ with vermin, and decent folk—such of them as are left—are afraid to step foot outside their own doors.”

“Wait a second,” said Toby, frowning thoughtfully. “If those men who confronted us weren’t these White Riders, who were they?”

“They may have been, for all I could tell you,” Joe admitted. “Those hoods aren’t just a fashion statement. But it’s not just the Riders anymore. The only law in Sarasio is the law of the wand, now. The Shady Lady is a safe haven because we’ve got armed men lookin’ after is, and because I live here. Everywhere else…it’s survival of the strongest, period.”

“How long can this possibly go on?” Trissiny demanded. “I mean, the Empire has to know what’s happening here! Don’t they care?”

“I may have failed to emphasize how quickly all this went down,” Joe replied. “The Empire heard rumors, all right, and sent an Imperial Surveyor to check out the situation and report back.” He nodded at Paxton, who heaved a deep sigh. “Well, obviously, the Riders caught wind of this. Luckily we were able to get Mr. Paxton in here with us, but he’s now pinned down. Comings and goings from the Lady are observed very carefully. They’ve taken out the scrolltower and they make sure nobody gets on the Rails.”

“That’s not security,” Gabriel said, scowling. “The Rail conductors passing by have to know something’s going on. And there are other ways in and out of the town—the whole place is surrounded by prairie. People can hike through the wilderness with the right know-how, they do it all the time. How can these Riders possibly think they can get away with this?”

“People are dumb,” said Tellwyrn.

“That,” Trissiny replied coldly, “is dismissive and reductive.”

“You’re correct,” the Professor replied, nodding. “It is both of those things and a gross oversimplification besides, and I’m encouraged to see that you realize it. If you’re ever to sort out the tangle of other people’s motivations, you have to consider their perspectives carefully and take into account all kinds of information that may not seem relevant from your own point of view. All sentient beings take action for what seems to them like good reason; most pointless conflicts stem from people dismissing one another’s reasons and going mindlessly on the offensive. That is the main thrust of what I teach in your history class, kids: understanding. Tease out the meanings and motives behind the actions of other people, and you will be in a position to change the situation according to your own aims.”

She leaned her elbows on the table, interlacing her fingers in front of her mouth and slowly sweeping her gaze across the group as she continued. “However, there is a time and a place. In the thick of a tense situation, it is sometimes—in fact, it is often simply not possible to consider all these things. In order to protect yourself and accomplish anything in the immediate term, you will often have to dispense with deeper understanding and act, as best you can. In such moments of crisis, there are generalities you can usually rely on, shorthands for understanding the behavior of people that will warn you what they are likely to do and help you see at a glance what you must do in response. One of these is that people are fucking dumb, and frequently, also assholes.”

“Oh, Arachne,” Lily sighed. “Ever the sourpuss.”

“I’m comfortable with the conclusion that a lot of people around here have been exceedingly dumb over a long stretch of time,” Joe said with a grimace, “myself not excluded. I couldn’t tell you what the Riders are thinking at this point. Given what they’ve been up to lately, I can’t find it in me to believe they’re still trying to act for the greater good. Still… Those men you saw, and others like ’em, they’re a mixed bag. A lot are former adventurers who found the lawlessness here to their liking. Some are just folk, citizens of Sarasio who came to the same conclusion. I’m of the view that most folks are basically decent, but anywhere you go there’s always a few who’re only held in check by the rule of law. Take that away, and you see their true faces.”

“The problem,” said Tellwyrn, “is the specific nature of Sarasio’s ailments. These men have raised an organized militia, overthrown a legitimate civil authority, destroyed and denied access to Imperial communications and travel networks, killed and attempted to kill Imperial representatives and set themselves up as a savage puppet principality. This goes beyond anarchy, and into the legal criteria for rebellion.”

“And when the R word gets tossed around,” Joe said grimly, “the Empire starts getting a whole lot less understanding in general. Might be they’d listen to our side of the story. Maybe not. If not… They might simply relocate everyone and abandon Sarasio. On the other hand, it ain’t inconceivable the Empire will decide to make an example out here. There’s not been an open rebellion on this continent in decades. The Imperials can’t have people gettin’ the idea they can get away with it.”

“The Tirasian Dynasty isn’t so ham-fisted, as a rule,” Tellwyrn pointed out. “Also, you have Mr. Paxton here to vouch for you.”

Paxton let out another little half-grunt, half-laugh that held more bitterness than humor, still gazing blearily into the table as though it promised a solution to the dilemma of Sarasio.

“I am somewhat less comforted by these facts than I might be,” Joe said carefully. “And a lot of folk agree with me. You’re not wrong in that the town ain’t exactly secure, Gabriel. People’ve been slipping away…well, not in droves, but in as steady a trickle as they can manage. The Riders discourage it in the most brutal way possible, but it happens. It’s only a matter of time, and not much of that, before the Empire comes down on us. Then, only the gods know where the chips will fall.”

“They’ll come,” Paxton mumbled. “I’m weeks late making my report. Someone’ll be sent to find out what happened to useless old Heywood Paxton sooner or later.”

“And so there you have it,” said Tellwyrn, spreading her hands wide. “The town divided against itself, subjected to a reign of vigilante terror, and under severe strain in its relationship with the nearby elves.”

“Wait, what? There’s more?” Gabriel groaned. “What’s going on with the elves?”

“Robin can explain that in detail,” said Tellwyrn. “For now, you understand the basics of the situation. You have been brought here to perform a field exercise which will determine the bulk of your final grade for this semester. Your task: save Sarasio.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot up. “We’re an academic exercise?”

“There are much worse things you could be,” Tellwryn told him, “and likely will be if something isn’t done quickly. There are two reasons I have chosen this task for you, students. In the first place, your previous expedition put you in a series of brute-force situations, which you severely overcomplicated and thus outsmarted yourselves. Be assured, we will be working on that before you leave my University, but I am interested in seeing how you handle a more cerebral problem. Given the makeup of this group, it might be more in line with your various talents. The situation here won’t yield to such straightforward measures; you are going to have to make a solid plan and execute it carefully.”

“The hell are you talking about?” Ruda demanded. “This could not be simpler. We round up these White Riders, end them, and boom. Everything goes back the way it was.”

“Except it won’t,” said Gabriel, frowning into the distance. “They already tried that, Joe and the Sheriff both. There’s been too much bad blood…too much blood spilled. Everybody here’s at each other’s throats, and that’s just the ones we know about. Gods only know how the elves fit into this.”

“Poorly,” Robin commented from the sidelines.

“Gabriel’s right,” said Toby. “There are a whole chain of breaches that need to be healed. Getting rid of the Riders will have to be part of the solution, but that won’t do it by itself. Saving the town will mean…” He trailed off, then shook his head. “I don’t even know.”

“Which brings me to point two,” said Tellwyrn. “Sarasio is in a death spiral. One way or another, whether the White Riders manage to depopulate the town before the Empire does, within another half a year there’ll be nothing here but the coyotes.”

“The Lady looks pretty,” agreed Joe, “but that’s because it’s full of refugees who have nothing better to do than look after the place. It helps keep us sane. Nobody here is doing any kind of business; we’re low on food and all but out of all other kinds of resources.”

“The point being,” Tellwyrn said with a faint smirk, “you cannot possibly make this situation any worse. Even if you manage to botch it as enthusiastically as you did your last field assignment, it’ll only mean granting this town a clean beheading rather than a lingering death by infection. The Empire won’t care about saving Sarasio; if it’s not done before they get here, it won’t be done. It’s up to you now, kids.”

There was silence around the table for a moment. Then Toby stood, pushing back his chair. “Well, then… I guess we’d better start making plans.”


 

Once in motion, the students lost no time heading off to a corner with Robin to get the rundown on the local elven population; it took Jenny only slightly more effort to coax Mr. Paxton up and off to his room for a nap.

Joe glanced back and forth between Tellwyrn and Lily, who were watching each other far too intently, the elf as if planning to invade a fortress, the woman in red with amused detachment. He cleared his throat softly.

“I believe I’ll stretch my legs a bit. No doubt you’ll want some privacy to catch up.”

“Thank you, Joseph,” said Tellwyrn without taking her eyes off Lily.

“Ladies,” he said courteously, bowing once before backing away and heading off.

The faintest tingle across the skin was the only sign of a silencing spell going off, a subtle effect that would likely have gone unnoticed by anyone not looking for it. Lily’s smile widened till she was nearly laughing outright; she stood, paced around the table and dropped herself into Joe’s seat, next to he other woman.

“Still paranoid, I see. You really needn’t bother with such touches, Arachne. I am never overheard when I don’t wish to be. By definition.”

“Mm.” Tellwyrn just stared at her.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You wanted to talk, remember? You went to considerable trouble to send me that little message, you heartless ghoul, you. Don’t blame me for not being fool enough to approach you in your own nest. Anyhow, this is much more interesting! What an intriguing little town this is. Did you know the Shifter was here?”

“The Shifter’s always somewhere. You’d be a lot less impressed if you spent as much time on this plane as you claim to wish.”

Lily’s grin widened. “Well, we can’t all just do whatever we want, you know. On the other hand, look who I’m talking to.”

Tellwyrn looked at her in silence for a moment before answering. “I’ve been in communication with Quentin Vex. He doesn’t tell me much, but he did point me to the remaining possession sites. I know, now, Vadrieny was the only survivor.”

Lily’s smile vanished like a snuffed candle, replaced by an icy look of fury. “Straight to the point, is it? If you insist on sticking your nose into my business, Arachne, you should know better than to try to provoke me as your opening move. I have not come all this way to—”

Tellwyrn reached out and grasped Lily’s hand in one of her own, then simply held it, squeezing. Lily fell silent, looking down at their clasped hands in confusion, then up at the elf’s eyes.

Arachne simply held her in a white-knuckled grip, and said very softly, “I’ve seen four of my own buried.”

In the silence that followed, the rage melted from Lily’s face as though she simply didn’t have the strength to hold onto it. Her lips twitched, eyes squeezing shut; little slipped past her mastery of facial expression, only hints of the turmoil within. But she tightened her grip on Arachne’s fingers, squeezing till it hurt both of them. Neither let go.

It was long minutes before Tellwyrn spoke again. “I still need to know why. What possessed you to take such a risk?”

“It was perfect,” Lily whispered. “Flawless. It had been worked on for years, decades. Everything set up in advance, everything just so. Those girls were selected with the greatest possible care, each a perfect match. They’d have bonded fully, innocent mortal spirits with archdemons, and by the time the full plan had unfolded, the world would have changed its mind about me. The Church’s pillars knocked out from beneath it, the Pantheon’s lies held up to the light. And someone interfered.”

Her grip on Tellwyrn’s fingers tightened until their hands shook with the strain, but the elf didn’t so much as flinch. “Who?”

“Oh, who do you think?” she spat, finally releasing her. “I don’t know which of them did it, but I know it was more than one. To see through my fog of war, to alter those exquisitely designed spells so perfectly that neither my warlocks nor my demons, on either side of the dimensional barrier, saw anything… No one god could have done such a thing. If not the whole Pantheon in concert… Well. I will find out who it was. They will suffer unimaginably for this.”

“That kind of power and subtlety…” Tellwyrn shook her head. “An Elder could have done it unaided.”

Lily’s laugh dripped with scorn. “Oh, please. Scyllith is sealed away in her caverns, and if you’re going to try to pitch the idea that Naiya has decided to start taking an interest in divine politics now, after all this time…well, try harder.”

“I’m concerned by the lack of subtlety I see here,” Tellwyrn said. “You forget, I know your real face. It’s startling to see you wearing it openly. I’m playing a hunch, here, but would I be wrong in guessing that Sharidan would recognize that face, too? And then there’s your little trick outside my office. Writing messages on the wall really isn’t like you, Lil. You’re beginning to come unglued.”

“They killed. My. Children.” She didn’t raise her voice, but the lights in the room flickered, the temperature dropping a few degrees, and the entire building trembled faintly. The people around the room paused, looking up in alarm, the sounds of conversation and piano music faltering. Then Elilial’s aura reasserted itself and everyone present resumed not noticing that anything was or ever had been amiss. The goddess herself, however, met Tellwyrn’s eyes with a fierce glare. “All these years I’ve played the noble demon, never brought harm to their followers when I didn’t have to, never been more cruel in battle than I must. Even after everything they did to me. And now, they do this? No. I am done, Arachne. All these millennia I’ve wasted trying to win the point of principle when I should have just been destroying the bastards one by one. Well, lesson learned.”

“You know, one of the more reliable ways to outmaneuver someone smarter than yourself is to make them so angry they can’t think straight. I get excellent mileage out of that technique. Always have.” Tellwyrn’s eyes bored back into Lily’s, not giving an inch. “You are being played. What alarms me most is that you don’t even seem to see it. You’re better at this; this is your game, after all. You need to wake up before you’re goaded into making a mistake that will damn us all and the whole world with us, Lil.”

“Don’t talk to me about mistakes,” she snapped. “You really think I’m so dense I don’t see what’s happening here? I’m not about to go on a city-smashing rampage, that would be playing into the Pantheon’s hands. Those who think me less cunning because I’m angrier have made what will be their final and greatest mistake.”

“I’m not letting you wreck the world, Lil,” Tellwyrn said evenly. “I like the world. It’s where I keep most of my stuff.”

“You know very well I have no argument with you, Arachne, except when you stick yourself in where you don’t belong. Like this new idea you seem to have, that you’ve the right or the capacity to punish me for my transgressions.” A cold smile drifted across her face. “This is not a good idea, what with you having finally put down roots and all. Someone with as much to protect as you now have shouldn’t be shaking the coconut tree.”

Tellwyrn’s hand slapped down on the table. “I will tell you this once, and once only,” she hissed. “You do not come at me through my students. I’ve told you before, Lil, I don’t have an argument with you on principle. I’ll do what I think is best, but I am not your enemy. You mess with my kids, and that changes. Then it will be you and me, until only one of us is left. That is an oath. I don’t honestly know which of us would come out on top, but I do know the survivor would be reduced to almost nothing. And that is what will happen if you bring those students into this confict.”

Lily simply stared at her for a long moment, allowing naked surprise to show on her features. “My, my. You’re actually that confident you’re a match for me?”

“I don’t commonly go for the throat, with gods,” Tellwyrn said flatly. “Only twice. I won both times.”

Lily grinned. “I remember. The first, with my help.”

“And I couldn’t have done that without you,” she acknowledged, “nor you without me. You’re good, but you’re no Scyllith. Besides, that was then; this is now. I finished off Sorash without anybody’s help. And as I was recently telling my kids…” She raised an eyebrow, the faintest hint of an icy smile crossing her features. “When a god dies, all that power has to go somewhere.”

Lily regarded her thoughtfully. “Very well. You have my oath: I mean your students no harm and will do them none.”

Tellwyrn nodded, relaxing subtly. “Good. Then—”

“I have to tell you, Arachne, I’m rather offended that you thought I’d do such a thing in the first place. I was referring to the fact that you can’t just swagger through the world, not caring what it thinks of you anymore. Your University is an institution. You get away with so much because people aren’t willing to challenge you; you take advantage of so many systems and structures you’ve never bothered to appreciate. I wouldn’t need to do anything as barbaric as threaten your kids to rip the whole thing from under your feet. So let’s not start this, hmm? Just mind your business, Arachne. Raise up the next generation of heroes and villains and whatnots. By the time I’m done with my business, there’ll be plenty of work for them all.”

Tellwyrn rubbed her forefinger and thumb together as though fondling a coin. “Not good enough,” she said after a pause. “I’m serious, Lil. You doing your thing, as per your particular idiom, that doesn’t bother me. Frankly the world needs more people—and more gods—acting with care and a sense of balance. But I know the pain you’re in, and I see the slaughter behind your eyes. This is what brought me into this in the first place. That business, those poor girls you immolated: that’s not like you. You are making a mistake. You need to stop. Step back, see what’s happening and try something else.” She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Something that doesn’t result in a great doom, preferably.”

Lily shook her head. “It’s just too late, Arachne. Time was close to up before they committed their final sin. It’s been all I can do to re-work my strategies without my girls to count on. I will not be stopped now.”

They stared at each other, the silence stretching out between them.

The goddess was the first to look away. “How is she?” she asked quietly.

Tellwyrn slowly eased back in her chair, suddenly weary. “As well as I can say, considering how rarely she comes out? Actually, quite well. Teal is a good influence on her, I think.”

Lily nodded. “Teal Falconer is only of the most exceptional people of this or any age. I’ll never be able to fully repay her.”

“No, you really won’t. But you can start by not dragging her into a war between you and the gods.”

“That hasn’t ever been an option,” Lily said with a sigh. “All seven of them? Maneuvering just right, that would have been a movement. More than cults: social change on a vast scale. But just one? She’d only be a target. She’s fierce and durable, but the gods and their Church would find a way to put her down. No… Just…” She swallowed. “Just…please look after my girl, Arachne. She’s all that’s left. Let her sit this out.”

“You are talking about two women in one body, one an idealist and the other a nearly literal fireball. They won’t be sitting anything out.” Tellwyrn shook her head, smiling ruefully. “If I do my job right, though, they’ll be ready for whatever comes by the time it does.”

“Do that, then.”

“Lil.”

The goddess met her eyes, and Arachne reached out to briefly squeeze her hand again. “When you have calmed enough to consider it, remember what I said. You haven’t seen everything going on here. You’re not the only player with a stake in this game; someone is pulling your strings. If you continue to let them, you won’t have a prayer of winning.”

“It’s been a very, very long time since I had a prayer,” she replied with a smile. “I tend to win anyway. And perhaps, Arachne, it’s not only I who don’t know as much as I think. Hm?”

She stood, raised one eyebrow sardonically, then turned and sashayed away without another word.

“Well, I know that,” Tellwyrn grumbled at the empty table. “Otherwise why would I bother?”


 

“The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.”

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Gabriel was first off the caravan. He stumbled to his hands and knees, gasping. Juniper practically threw herself out of the car to his side, looking distressed.

“I’m sorry! I don’t think I can do anything for… I mean, injuries, that’s another—”

“Excuse me,” Shaeine said politely, stepping around her to kneel at his other side.

Gabe lifted his head, eyes widening as a silver glow lit up around her. “Wait,” he said hoarsely.

She placed a hand on his shoulder, and like a ripple in a pond, silver washed across him. Gabriel blinked twice in surprise, then slowly straightened up. “Oh…wow,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Wow. That’s amazing. Is that what divine healing always feels like?”

“I’m afraid I have no basis for comparison,” Shaeine said, straightening. “Are you well?”

“Mostly just embarrassed,” he admitted, accepting a hand from Juniper to get to his feet.

“That dovetails nicely with a little history lesson,” Tellwyrn remarked, stepping down from her own car. The rest of the students had already assembled on the Rail platform and were clustered around Gabriel. “The divine energy we know was created by the Pantheon when they first organized. It is, basically, the collected corpses of the previous generation of gods.”

Ruda wrinkled her nose. “Fucking gross.”

“Yes, well, the good stuff in life usually is,” said the Professor with a grin. “Gods are beings of unfathomable power. When they die, that energy has to go somewhere. It was, in part, by killing off the Elder Gods that the future Pantheon rose to godhood. There was more to it, but I really couldn’t tell you what. Apotheosis is not well understood.”

“Sounds like they might not want anybody to know how,” Gabriel suggested, “if it’d mean someone doing to them what they did to the Elders.”

“You are flirting with blasphemy,” Trissiny warned.

“He’s not wrong, though,” Tellwyrn said. “In fairness it should be acknowledged that the Elder Gods were nightmarish things. They brutalized the mortal inhabitants of the world; the Pantheon’s rebellion didn’t just happen on a whim, and it wasn’t about seizing power. The gods acted to free their people. Anyhow, once all this was done, they gathered up as much of the remaining free energy of the slain Elders as they could and created the wellspring of divine light we know today, establishing certain rules in the process. One of those, of course, is that the light burns demons and their kindred. This was just after Elilial had been expelled to Hell, and they had every reason to expect she’d be out for vengeance.”

“And Themynra isn’t part of the Pantheon,” Toby said, nodding at Shaeine.

“Just so,” Tellwyrn replied. “She is, in fact, the goddess of judgment. When you call on power from the Pantheon gods, there’s something rather mechanistic about it; the light does what it does according to its established nature. Shaeine’s method is different. She is inviting her goddess’s attention and intervention, which means that rather than a simple exercise of energy, Themynra is passing judgment upon the situation.”

Gabriel blinked, then wrapped his arms around himself. “That’s… A little creepy.”

“Oh, relax,” Tellwyrn said wryly, “you just got a free healing, didn’t you? Honestly, Mr. Arquin, I can’t imagine Themynra is impressed with your judgment, but that evidently doesn’t mean she thinks you deserve to suffer. Anybody who believes you are in any way evil is suffering from a severe case of narrow-mindedness.”

Ruda and Juniper looked at Trissiny; the others very pointedly did not. Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out through her teeth, but said nothing.

“Anyway!” Tellwyrn said brightly. “Welcome to Sarasio, kids. Let’s unload our junk, we don’t want to keep the caravan waiting.”

They drifted toward the baggage car, belatedly studying their new surroundings. The first and most immediate thing the students noticed was that they were not in Sarasio. The Rail platform stood alone on the prairie, with subtly rolling land dotted with a patchier, more uneven sort of tallgrass than grew around Last Rock dusting the area. To the west, the ground smoothed out into the Golden Sea, and there were other interesting features in the near distance. A forest grew about a mile to the east, and the road north led to a huddle of buildings beneath a drifting cloud of firewood smoke, evidently Sarasio itself.

The platform itself was severely run down compared to its counterpart in Last Rock. There was no ticket office to be seen, just the flat stone platform and a small wooden frame over which a canvas awning had been stretched as meager protection from the elements. The wood had been painted at one point—blue, to judge by the flecks that still remained. The awning had holes and had fallen entirely on one end, waving dolorously in the faint breeze. Old cans, broken glass, scraps of wood and other miscellaneous trash littered the ground.

“Suddenly I’m glad we packed light,” said Gabriel. “Damn, never thought I’d find myself missing Rafe and his pants of holding.”

“I’ll be sure to mention to Professor Rafe how eager you are to get into his pants,” Ruda said cheerily.

Gabriel sighed. “You just had to, didn’t you?”

“I really, really did.”

Trissiny hefted her own knapsack, hoisting it over one shoulder so it left her hands free, keeping an eye on their surroundings. They weren’t alone. Sitting around a small, weak campfire were three men in denim and flannel, with scuffed boots and ten-gallon hats that had clearly seen better days. Though they were just sitting, their postured hunched and uninterested, two were clutching wands and the third had a staff in his hands, and all three were staring fixedly at the group on the platform, unease written plain on their faces.

“What’s their story, I wonder,?” Toby murmured, glancing at them.

“Oh, they’re probably just waiting there to rob anybody fool enough to ride the Rails to Sarasio,” Tellwyrn said brightly, loud enough to be plainly audible. “Of course, they probably weren’t expecting a paladin, a dryad and a drow. If they knew how dangerous the rest of you were, they’d already be running.”

Apparently the three men thought this was good advice; she hadn’t even finished speaking before they bolted to their feet and set off for the town at a run.

“Hey!” Trissiny shouted, grasping her sword and taking a step after them.

“Leave it, Avelea,” said Tellwyrn.

“They were actually going to—”

“Leave it. That is an order.”

“This is my—”

“Young lady, you are going to drop this and accompany the rest of us into town. You can do this under your own power, or be levitated and pushed ahead with a stick. Go for whatever you think best serves Avei’s dignity; I assure you, I have no preference.”

“Y’know, Professor, you could really stand to work on your social skills,” Gabriel commented.

“All my skills are at precisely the level I require, boy. Ah, here’s our escort, splendid.”

Another figure was rapidly approaching from the direction of the forest, this one mounted. She was, it quickly became clear, an elf astride a silver unicorn. She was dressed somewhat like Professor Tellwyrn, with a leather vest over a blousy-sleeved green shirt and trousers, but while Tellwyrn tended to wear simple pieces in fine fabrics, this elf was the opposite; her pants were coarse leather, but they and the vest were decorated with bright embroidery, and her blouse had been tie-died in shades of green and brown that would have made it effective forest camouflage. She had a short staff slung in a holster on her back, its end poking up over her blonde hair, which was tied back with a green bandana.

Drawing up adjacent to the platform, the elf hopped nimbly down from her mount before it had even stopped moving, landing lightly among them. This close, the small but beautifully engraved tomahawk hanging at her belt was visible.

“There you are,” Tellwyrn said in a satisfied tone. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten.”

“No need to be insulting, Arachne,” the elf replied. “I try not to loiter close to humans obviously bent on mischief. I was watching for you.”

“Students, I’ll let you all introduce yourselves as the opportunity arises, but this is Robin. She’ll be escorting you into town, and hopefully helping us deal with the local tribe.”

“Deal with them how?” Ruda demanded. “What are we doing here?”

“All in good time,” Tellwyrn said, smiling with a hint of smugness. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go arrange quarters for us. You catch up at your own pace.” She vaulted neatly from the platform onto the unicorn’s back; the animal pranced nervously at the unfamiliar rider, but plunged into motion at the merest squeeze of her knees. It bounded away in a series of fluid horizontal leaps, like a deer, with Tellwyrn balanced skillfully on its back.

“Huh,” said Gabe. “For some reason it seems odd that she knows how to ride.”

“She knows how to do a great many things,” Robin said dryly.

“Not how to plan ahead, apparently,” Ruda grunted. “Who packs nine people off to a town without arranging things ahead of time?”

“Many of Professor Tellwyrn’s actions seem calculated to force us to adapt and learn,” Shaeine noted. “Perhaps this is more of the same.”

“That may be part of it,” Robin said, nodding, “but in any case it would have been hard for even her to make arrangements anyway. Communications in and out of Sarasio are difficult at the moment. I suspect that’s why you’ve come.”

“What’s going on in Sarasio?” Trissiny asked with a frown. On her Rail trip to the University, the Imperial Surveyor she’d met had indicated the town was a trouble spot. But that had been months ago; surely he’d been on the way there to deal with it?

“It’s a long story, which you’ll be told in due time,” Robin replied, hopping lightly down from the platform. “Come along, now, no need to dawdle. Arachne will have plenty of time to make arrangements without us dragging our feet.”

They followed her, picking up baggage as they went. Per Tellwyrn’s instructions, they had packed lightly, everyone carrying no more than basic toiletries and a change of clothes. Evidently this wasn’t expected to be a long trip. Still, that was more than they’d been allowed to bring into the Golden Sea, the aim of that excursion having been outdoor survival as much as anything.

“So, you’re a friend of Professor Tellwyrn’s?” Toby asked their guide, walking with her in the head of the group.

Robin was silent for a few moments before answering not taking her eyes from the town ahead. “To the extent that she has friends, yes, I would like to think that I am. Arachne is, as you have doubtless discovered, a person who goes her own way.”

“This one’s got a knack for understatement,” Ruda snorted.

“It is not something very widely discussed among elves. The individual is respected, of course, but our tribes live in harmony with one another and the world as a way of life. Persons who run out into the world to do their own thing are seen as…disruptive. Tauhanwe are not widely welcomed among most tribes. My acquaintance with Arachne is, at best, tolerated.”

“Ansheh used that word, too,” Teal said, frowning. “Remember, Rafe’s friend from the Golden Sea? I thought I’d heard wrong, though… It translates as something like ‘person who stirs a pot.’”

“Tauhanwe translates more directly as ‘adventurer,’ Robin said, turning her head to smile at Teal. “But you have a solid grasp of the etymology. You studied elvish in school?”

Teal shook her head. “One of my parents’ best friends is an elf. He sorta helped raise me, actually; they work a lot.”

Robin nodded. “To be quite precise, the ‘pot’ referred to is what you would call a chamber pot.”

For a moment, there was only the sound of their footsteps.

“Hold on,” Gabriel said. “So basically Tellwyrn is known among elves as a shit-stirrer? That may be the single most appropriate thing I’ve ever heard.”

Trissiny did not join in on the round of laughter that followed, frowning into the distance ahead. By Robin’s description, Principia would be tauhanwe, too. What did that make her? If anything…

“So how do you know Tellwyrn?” Ruda asked.

“It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got time!”

“Ruda,” Trissiny said patiently, “when someone tells you ‘it’s a long story,’ that usually means they don’t want to get into it.”

“Yeah? And when someone keeps picking it it, that usually means they wanna hear it anyway.”

“No harm meant,” Gabriel assured their guide somewhat hastily, though Robin seemed totally unperturbed. “It’s just hard not to be curious. For being such a straight-shooting in-your-face person, Tellwyrn is damn hard to figure out.”

“Oh?”

“It’s tempting to conclude that she is simply mentally unbalanced or obstreperous,” Trissiny said. “But then out of nowhere she’ll do something…oddly kind. Or perceptive.”

“Wait, what?” Ruda said, frowning. “What’s she done that’s kind or perceptive?”

“You’ll know it if you see one,” Gabriel replied, “which is kinda the point. She’s so…cranky most of the time, it takes you by surprise.”

“Don’t judge Arachne too harshly,” Robin said, still watching the town. The monotonous nature of the prairie made perspective tricky and distance hard to judge; they hadn’t covered more than half the path. The Rail platform was a long way from the town…why? The elf went on before Trissiny could start considering it in any detail, however. “She has always been somewhat difficult, but she is generally reasonable. And she is devoted to her students, in her own way. Keep in mind that she is grieving; that will explain much of her behavior.”

“What?” Juniper looked shocked. “Grieving who? What happened?”

“I tell you this because knowing will help you understand her,” Robin said, “but I don’t advise raising the subject with her. Arachne lost her husband a little over a century ago.”

Gabriel let out an explosive sound of surprise that started as a laugh and finished as a gasp in reverse. “What, a century? I dunno how much that excuses. I mean, sure, it’s very sad, but that’s plenty of time to get over it.”

Robin glanced over at him. “You must be Gabriel.”

He turned to watch her warily, the levity fading from his face. “Yeeeaah. That’s me. For some reason, I suddenly feel offended and I’m not sure why.”

“That’s the little voice inside your head that tells you when you’re being a fucking dumbass,” Ruda informed him. “You might try listening to it before talking, just for a change of pace.”

“How would you like it, Gabriel,” Robin went on calmly, “if I pointed out in conversation that you are a snub-eared land ape with the lifespan of a prairie dog?”

Gabe actually stopped walking, staring at her in shock. “Excuse me?”

“No?” Robin glanced back at him, but did not slow her pace, forcing him to start moving again or be left behind. “Then let us not pick at one another’s racial traits. In a group such as this, I would expect you to have learned that lesson long since.”

“He ain’t the quickest learner,” Ruda said with a grin, thumping Gabe with her elbow.

“What the hell are you even talking about?” Gabriel demanded.

“Immortality is not without its drawbacks,” she explained. “Humans do not live shorter lives so much as faster lives. You mature faster, and you heal faster, both physically and emotionally. For an elf, a papercut is an inconvenience for several weeks or months. A broken bone means a year at least of inaction. Luckily we do not cut or break as easily as you. To an elf, however, a heartbreak dominates the mind for longer than the average human lives. I assure you, to an elf, the loss of a mate a century ago is a very raw wound indeed. So have a little patience with Arachne. She lives with a great deal of pain, and yet devotes her energies to educating people who will likely be dead before she herself is fully healed.”

Nobody found anything to say to that, and they walked on in silence for a while. At least until the edges of the town drew closer, and they came within viewing range of Sarasio’s scrolltower. It was harder to spot than most of its kind because this one was horizontal.

The metal framework of the tower itself was in pieces, bent and snapped in multiple places, forming a ragged line between the shattered crystal orb that now lay on the prairie and the burned out husk of the office that had been at its foot. Only the two largest pieces of the orb remained; they were probably the only two pieces too big to carry away. The larger of the two would have been difficult to fit into a wagon. Scrolltower crystal wasn’t high quality and would degrade quickly once separated into bits, but it was still laden with potent magic. There was value in such things.

“What the hell…” Gabriel whispered, frowning.

“Welcome to Sarasio,” Robin said dryly. “Keep your eyes open and your wits about you; this is not a friendly place.”

She wasn’t kidding.

The town wasn’t as badly repaired as the Rail platform had been; obviously people lived here and took at least some care of their environs. Next to Last Rock, however, it was a shambles. A number of windows were boarded up, and nearly every building had some small touch that was in need of repair—peeling paint, broken gutters, missing shingles. The streets were dirt, and in awful repair, marred by deep wheel ruts and potholes, with a liberal spattering of animal droppings, which added unpleasantly to the sharp smell of wood smoke hanging in the air.

Worst, though, were the people.

The only individuals out on the street were men. None were well-dressed, and all were armed. Most could have done with a bath and a shave. It wasn’t their general scruffiness that made the group draw closer together, though, but their behavior. At this time of day, townsfolk should be working, or possibly socializing, depending on their jobs, but the men of Sarasio—at least, those currently visible—seemed totally idle. They lounged against storefronts on the mouths of alleys, faces blank and eyes narrowed, staring—in many cases, glaring—at the new arrivals. Far too many hands crept toward holstered wands.

“Good gods,” Gabriel murmured. “Professor Tellwyrn just ran this gauntlet. I wonder if she killed anybody.”

“The body would still be here if so,” Robin said quietly. “These people are not quick to care for each other. But this is more hostility than they usually show, even accounting for my presence. I suspect she did something.”

“Your presence?” Shaeine asked softly. She had put her hood up as they approached the town, despite the early hour and her shaded glasses, and now kept her hands tucked into her sleeves. Without skin or hair showing, her race was hidden, which was doubtless to the good.

“Elves are not well thought of in Sarasio at the moment,” Robin replied dryly.

“Here we go,” Toby muttered as a cluster of four stepped out of an alley ahead of them, pacing to the center of the street. Two more men crossed from the other side to join them, placing themselves in a staggered formation to bar the whole road. One stepped forward, his thumbs tucked into the front of his belt.

“Morning, gentlemen,” Toby said more loudly as their group came to a stop. “Something we can help you with?”

The man in the lead eyed him up and down once, then twisted his mouth contemptuously and spat to the side before addressing Robin. “Get on outta here, elfie. Your kind ain’t wanted.”

“I have a simple errand to run,” Robin replied calmly. “I’ll be on my way then.”

“You’ll be on your way now,” he snapped, then grinned unpleasantly and took another step forward. “’less you wanna make yourself useful, first. Only one use I can see for an elf bitch that don’t involve stringin’ them ears on a necklace.” He dragged his eyes slowly down Robin’s figure, smirking, while his companions grinned and snickered.

“Boy, it’s like they want to get smote,” Gabriel muttered. Indeed, Trissiny dropped her pack in the street and stalked forward, pushing past Toby, and stepped right up into the man’s face until her nose was inches from his. She was very nearly his height. He reared back slightly in surprise, but didn’t give ground or move his feet.

“Move,” she said simply, her voice deadly quiet.

“Yeah?” he drawled. “Or what? This ain’t no place for a Legionnaire, girl. Or didn’t your mama ever teach you not to bring a sword to a wandfight?”

Another round of guffaws followed this, instantly cut off as light erupted from Trissiny. The man in the lead threw a hand up to shield his eyes, staggering back; with his other, he yanked his wand from its holster, but not before Trissiny slammed her shield into his chest.

Reeling, he nonetheless managed to bring the wand up and fired a lightning bolt directly at her torso at point blank range.

Sparks flew from the sphere of golden energy that had formed around her; those standing closest felt their hair rise from the static electricity.

“What the f—” He got no further as Trissiny stepped calmly forward, reversed her grip on her sword and slammed the pommel into his solar plexus. The man crumpled to the street with a wheeze, and she stomped hard on his wand hand. He emitted a strangled sound that didn’t quite manage to be a scream, the breath having been driven from him. It wasn’t loud enough to cover the crack of breaking fingers.

Trissiny pointed her sword at his head, the blade burning gold. From the nimbus of light around her, golden eagle wings coalesced, flaring open in a display of Avei’s attention.

“Never point your wand at a paladin, fool,” she said coldly, then lifted her gaze to the nearest of his allies. “Does anyone else want to try me?”

They broke and ran, vanishing back into the alleys. All up and down the street, figures shifted backward, sliding into doors and alleyways or just folding themselves into shadowed corners. Within a minute, they had the street to themselves.

“That was overly dramatic,” Robin said, her neutral tone giving no indication what she thought of it. “You very likely just bought yourself another visit from this poor fool’s friends, when they think they have the advantage.”

“What will be, will be,” Trissiny said, removing her boot from the fallen man’s hand. He gasped, cradling his crushed fingers against his chest and scuttling backward away from him.

“We could offer him a healing,” Shaeine said.

“We could,” Trissiny said coldly, “but we won’t. Right?” She gave Toby a sharp look. He returned her gaze, then looked back at the man who had now scrambled to his feet and was fleeing to the nearest alley, leaving his wand lying in the street. Toby’s mouth drew into a thin line, his eyebrows lowering, but he only shook his head and said nothing. Trissiny felt a sharp pang, but dismissed it. She had her duty. The light faded from around her.

“Well,” Robin said with a shrug, “on we go, then.”

They made no further conversation until they reached their goal. Down a couple of side streets, they came to a fairly large building in somewhat better repair than most of Sarasio seemed to be. The wooden sign above its doors proclaimed it to be the Shady Lady in a curly font. Two large men wearing grim expressions flanked the doors, ostentatiously carrying wands. Unlike most of the town’s inhabitants, though, they were clean-shaven and well-dressed in neat suits. They looked over the group but made no move to challenge their approach.

“What’s this?” Juniper asked curiously. “What makes you think Tellwyrn is here?”

“There are exactly two places in Sarasio where a party of this size can find room and board,” Robin said. “The other is neither clean nor safe. The Shady Lady is not my kind of place, but it is, in a sense, an island in a sea of squalor. In we go.”

So saying, she hopped lightly up the steps and pushed through the swinging doors. The two guards watched her enter, then returned their stares to the students, but held their peace. One by one, the nine of them stepped inside.

True to Robin’s word, the interior of the Shady Lady was a sharp contrast to the rest of Sarasio. The wide-open main room soared two stories tall and was well-lit and spotlessly clean. The furnishings and décor were of good quality and showed understated good taste, running toward highly polished wood and fabrics in dark jewel tones, with subtle brass accents. It had clearly all been decorated with an eye to theme; everything matched. A spiral staircase led to a second-floor balcony; a grand piano sat in one corner, being played right now—the music wasn’t audible from the street, suggesting a sound-dampening enchantment on the building—and a heavy wooden bar lined one side of the room, behind which were a huge assortment of gleaming bottles. Most of the floor area was taken up by round tables encircled by chairs.

More startling, though, were the people present. There were three more burly guards in suits, as well as a man with a handlebar mustache behind the bar, presently polishing a glass mug; he looked up at them and smiled. A lean young man was playing the piano, his attention fully focused on the keys. Several of the tables were occupied by customers. Most of those present, though, were young women, and most were in nothing more than lingerie. Perched on the bar—and on the piano—seated with customers and laughing flirtatiously, leaning over the balcony rail, they had scattered themselves around the area like merchandise on a showroom floor.

“Um,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “…never mind.”

“No, go on,” Ruda insisted, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s on your mind, Gabe?”

“I said never mind. I’m following our advice, Ruda. The little voice is telling me I’m about to say something dumb.”

“Is it telling you to ask if we’re in a brothel?” she asked, her grin stretching till it looked almost painful. “’Cos if so, your timing sucks, as usual. You picked the one moment when you’d have been right to start keeping your mouth shut. Because we are, in fact, in a brothel.”

“How?” Teal demanded, then lowered her voice. “I mean… I know brothels exist, but how could somebody run one this big, and this…fancy?”

“Supply and demand,” Toby murmured. “Can you really see someone setting up a temple of Izara in this town?”

“Okay, that’s a point.”

“What’s a brothel?” Juniper asked curiously. Shaeine leaned in close and stood on her tiptoes to whisper in her ear. The dryad’s eyes widened. “You can sell that?!”

A hush descended on the room, all eyes shifting to the party at the door. Then the pianist resumed his piece, and others gradually went back to what they’d been doing.

Juniper, meanwhile, shook her head slowly. “Man, humans are bonkers.”

“When you’re right, you’re right,” Trissiny agreed.

“Um. Well, yes. When I’m right, I by definition am right. I’m not sure why that needs to be said.”

“It’s one of those figures of speech,” Fross told her.

“Oh.”

“Yoo hoo!” Professor Tellwyrn sang. She was seated at a large round table across the room with several other people, and now waved enthusiastically at them. “Over here, kids! Chop chop!”

They dutifully trooped over to join her, Robin falling to the rear as they crossed the room and arranged themselves in the empty space near her table.

Tellwyrn, uncharacteristically, seemed to have made friends. A teenage boy in an extremely well-tailored suit sat next to her. He looked a few years younger than the University students, certainly not old enough to be hanging out in a place like this. A deck of cards sat under his gently drumming fingers on the table; the huge piece of tigerseye set in his bolo tie flashed distractingly. He nodded politely to them at their approach.

On Tellwyrn’s other side, Trissiny was surprised to note, sat Heywood Paxton, the Imperial agent she had met and blessed several months ago on his way to Sarasio. He didn’t even look up, now, staring morosely at the center of the table, his mind clearly elsewhere. He had lost weight, and to judge by the bags under his eyes, sleep.

The fourth person present was seated with her back to them, but on their arrival she turned in her chair, draping her arm across the back to eye them over. She was a slim woman with a bronze complexion, with a long, sharp face that was subtly lovely though disqualified for true beauty by a slightly beakish nose. She wore a close-fitting red dress that showed a daring amount of cleavage, and had her black hair pinned up in an elaborate bun bedecked with scarlet feathers and rubies.

“Well, hello,” she purred. “So you’re Arachne’s students? What an absolute pleasure. You can call me Lily.”

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Glad as she was to be off the caravan, Trissiny stepped into a scene of such chaos that she froze, unable to take it all in. The Rail station at Calderaas was bigger than the entire Abbey back home, but vastly open and apparently made of glass. She’d have thought the metal framework which supported it was some kind of empty cage, except that rain was pounding on it at the moment. Worse, the huge station was crammed with people; shouting, shoving people, dressed in a variety of costumes such as she had never seen. Barely a majority of them were even human.

She inhaled deeply, trying to orient herself. The Hand of Avei would not be paralyzed by indecision, nor peer about stupidly like some sort of bumpkin just in from the sticks. Truthfully, that might be a fair description and Trissiny had little in the way of personal ego, but she was terrified of being an embarrassment to her goddess. She could do this.

Behind her, someone cleared his throat loudly. Blushing, she mumbled an apology and quickly lugged herself and her trunk out of the path so everyone else could leave the caravan. Apparently the Hand of Avei could freeze like a spooked rabbit and hold up the entirety of Imperial commerce on this Rail line. Only the fear of making herself an even bigger spectacle stopped her from slapping her own face in frustration.

Judging by the level of pushing and general rudeness going on around her, that more gentle reminder had been very special treatment. Well, even if people didn’t know the significance of the silver finish of her armor, it was still recognizably the ceremonial gear of the Sisters of Avei; few would seek to irritate her. She took up a position to the side of the caravan steps, out of everyone’s way, and fished out her travel itinerary from her belt pouch to look it over again. Not that she hadn’t memorized the thing long since, and anyway it wasn’t that complicated, but it was a tiny bit of familiarity.

People back home weren’t all that homogenous, or so she’d thought. Viridill had been settled by humans from every part of the Empire, and even today was home to humans of every color, shape and description. But with the exception of the odd elven traveler and the lizardfolk up in the mountains, they were all humans, and dressed themselves mostly in the same, humble style. The people here in the station were a cross-section of the entire Empire, or so it seemed to her, and she didn’t know what to make of the variety of costumes she saw. Suits, waistcoats and coats with long tails seemed the custom for most men, often with stovepipe hats on the more elaborately dressed, or wider brimmed ten-gallon styles for those who worked for a living. Nearby, a knot of well-to-do ladies tittered amongst themselves, garbed in flowing pastel-toned gowns, a menagerie of preposterous hats and corsets. Trissiny forced herself not to gape. How could a woman even breathe in those things, much less move? Perhaps Mother Narny had been right about fashion being a weapon against all womankind.

Oddly dressed as they might be, though, humans were something Trissiny understood, and most of her attention was on the various others in the crowd. There were more elves than she’d ever imagined seeing in one place, mostly keeping to themselves and moving in small pockets in the crowd, as if their neighbors were reluctant to touch them even by accident. Dwarves she knew only by description, but the several who were presently trundling rapidly about their business on the platform were unmistakeable even so. A passing couple of very small people on a goat-pulled cart had to be gnomes of some kind. Through gaps in the crowd, Trissiny glimpsed a small family of lizardfolk seated against one wall, a battered hat set in front of them. That sight was troubling; she’d rarely dealt with the lizardfolk back home, but she thought of them as too proud to beg.

She was gathering stares of her own, as well; none hostile, but many awed and some rather fearful. Apparently quite a few people in Calderaas did know what silver armor meant. There might even be some present who could sense the aura of divine power that she had been told hovered over her. Trissiny schooled her expression, tucked away her itinerary and set off in search of Platform Ten. There hadn’t been a paladin of Avei in thirty years, and she surely hadn’t been called now to make a spectacle of herself in the Rail station.

Five minutes later she had to give up and reorient herself again. The layout of the station was confusing; platforms were interspersed with Rail lines, reached by collections of wrought-iron footbridges that arched over the Rails themselves. Her trunk had a handle and wheels, which she’d thought a great luxury when it was first given to her, but that was before she’d had to drag it up and down half a dozen sets of stairs. The platforms weren’t labeled in the most helpful manner, either. She ultimately had to stop in the middle of one of the footbridges and crane her neck around to find the signs, which revealed that she had been going in the wrong direction. With a sigh, Trissiny turned back and made her up-and-down way, gritting her teeth against the constant bumping of her trunk, to Platform Ten.

She was a good twenty minutes early to catch her next caravan, but made certain to consult the board posted by the stairs to verify that this would be the one going to Last Rock. With little else to do but wait, she tucked herself as out of the way as she could on the bustling platform and fell back to studying her environment.

Of the same iron construction as the footbridges, there were several small platforms extending over the Rails themselves, which were in use for a variety of purposes. Two were clearly for storage, piled high with crates and barrels. Another, otherwise empty, was being taken advantage of by several travelers as a respite from the pushing throng. On the nearest, a couple of elves had set up a tiny stand and were selling tea from beneath a hand-painted sign reading “Platform 9 ¾.” Trissiny appreciated the whimsy, but she was not tempted. Between her general nervousness, the roiling in her stomach from the Rail ride she’d just escaped and the anticipation of her next one, she couldn’t have kept a cup of tea down. Riding the Rails was one of the most romanticized experiences of the modern age; in practice, she found it rather like being sealed inside a barrel and rolled down a hill.

“Hey, Blondie! Yeah, you, girlie. I’m talkin’ to you!”

It took a couple of repetitions for Trissiny to realize she was being addressed. No one in her life had ever spoken to her that way, and since she had gained her sword and armor, most people possessed of any sense would not have dared.

Now, a man ambled up to her directly, grinning and eying her up and down as he came in a manner that nearly made her reach for her sword. He was garbed like something out of a penny novel, all dust-stained denim and flannel, with snakeskin boots and a ten-gallon hat. “Mighty pleased to meet you, missy,” he said in a prairie drawl, his grin becoming an outright leer. “If you got a bit before your car comes, mebbe we can find a shady spot to have a drink? My treat.”

Trissiny was too astonished by the sheer effrontery to react as she otherwise might. That bought her a moment to reconsider her first impulse; thrashing this fool would doubtless lead to trouble no matter how much he deserved it. At the very least, she’d miss her caravan.

“No, thank you,” she replied stiffly. A whipping with the flat of her blade would do him a world of good, but she could not go around smiting every idiot who lacked manners. She reminded herself forcefully of this as he leaned in close enough for her to smell the whiskey on his breath.

“Aw, don’t be like that, darlin’. Why, I bet you’ll find me the best company you ever—oof!”

A second cowboy, dressed similarly and strongly resembling her admirer in the face, shouldered him roughly aside, then turned to her and tugged the brim of his hat. “My apologies, ma’am. My brother ain’t been off the ranch in half a year, an’ sometimes he forgets he wasn’t raised by wolves.” He cut off the protest forming on the first man’s face by swatting him upside the back of the head, forcing him to catch his flying hat. “Won’t happen again. ‘Scuze us.”

“Turn loose a’ me, Ezekiel!” the first cowboy said furiously as his brother grabbed him by the arm and began dragging him toward the nearest set of steps. “I was just havin’ some—”

“You shut the hell up. Land’s sakes, boy, if you gotta be embarrassing, couldja at least not be suicidal? Don’t you know a paladin when you see one? You ain’t that shitheaded!”

They were halfway up the footbridge, but their loud conversation remained clearly audible on Platform Ten. “Paladin? That ain’t no paladin, dumbass. That girl ain’t more’n fifteen.”

“Jebediah Jenkins, if I weren’t such a good brother I’d send you back over there to finish what you started, an’ spare myself the trouble of whuppin’ your ass for botherin’ a girl you think is fifteen!”

Trissiny would have liked very much to sink into the platform and vanish. The brothers Jenkins were acquiring stares, which were quickly transferred to herself as people discerned the source of their quarrel. Against her will, her cheeks heated. Hopefully the onlookers would take it for righteous anger, selflessly suppressed. Yeah, and if hopes were coins, Avei would have a temple in every hamlet in the Empire.

A well-dressed man with the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial agent pinned to the breast of his coat, and another decorating his hat, shouldered quickly through the crowd, moving purposefully in the direction of the loud brothers. His wand remained holstered, though he held a hand conspicuously near it and kept his gaze fixed on the two cowboys. He paused before Trissiny to tilt his hat respectfully to her. “Blessings, ma’am.”

“And to you, Sheriff,” she replied gratefully, inclining her head. At least someone took her seriously without having to taste her blade. She did not look fifteen!

He proceeded after his quarry, and she fixed her gaze stiffly on a point above everyone’s head. It was funny how she could tell people were whispering about her, despite the ambient noise in the station.

She was unaccustomed to the crawling pace of time in a tense situation. Trissiny’s days were always full; there was never a lack of work to be done at the Abbey, and whenever she was not pitching in her fair share, she had more training and prayer to attend to than the other novice Sisters. On the very rare occasions when she wanted time to pass by faster, she would occupy herself in meditation, or in communing with the goddess.

There was simply nothing to do on the platform. Focusing inward was not an option as she did not feel remotely safe in this crowd of pushy strangers, especially after the encounter with the Jenkinses. She had her sword in its sheath at her belt and her shield on her back, but even had there been enough space to run through a combat drill without injuring someone, the sight would have caused turmoil in the bustling station. So she stood, for fifteen interminable minutes while the caravans roared by on their Rails and people gazed curiously at her, often pausing in their own business to do so. Trissiny practiced her situational awareness, keeping her gaze rigidly fixed on empty space but trying to maintain a knowledge of her surroundings through peripheral vision. It was the only thing she could think of to do aside from weltering in her own discomfort.

She was first to move when the caravan slowed to a stop next to Platform Ten. Trissiny watched the procedure with interest; she had seen it at the much smaller Rail depot in Trasio, but it remained impressive. The Rail itself, a single raised line on spokes like a bannister that extended into the distance in both directions, began to hum and glow arcane blue with the caravan’s approach. The train that arrived to take her on to Last Rock had eight passenger cars, twice the size of the one which had brought her here. They looked the same, though, tiny bits of glass and steel looking like a single squared tube with so many in a line. This caravan also had four larger, boxy cargo wagons affixed after the passenger cars, and another angular enchanter’s post behind that to match the one at the front. She wondered if the added weight meant it needed a second enchanter to keep it going.

Trissiny edged back from the Rail along with the other passengers as lightning sparked along the rim of the platform with the energy of the caravan halting itself. The tiny hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood upright.

She stood back to let the passengers disembark, most of them looking as stiff and disoriented as she had after her previous Rail ride, then moved quickly to claim her seat in the frontmost car, just behind the enchanter’s post. Nobody complained or tried to slip in ahead of her. Trissiny supposed it was all right to benefit from a healthy respect for paladins, as long as she wasn’t intimidating people on purpose. If folks thought the Hand of Avei might smite them for pushing in line ahead of her, well, there wasn’t much she could do about that, aside from proving them wrong.

She stowed her trunk under the seat as she’d been shown on the last caravan, strapping it in tightly with the frayed arrangement of leather thongs and buckles provided, then unslung her shield and laid it on the bench beside her, before taking her seat. This car might have been a duplicate of the other, except that she had it to herself. The padded benches were wide enough to seat three without much discomfort; she took the one facing the front, reasoning that it would diminish the dizzying terror of the Rail ride not to have to do it backward. It was like being in a little glass bubble, and she enjoyed the solitude after the crowded platform.

People weren’t hurrying to join her, but that would probably only last until someone came along who hadn’t seen the paladin duck in here. She enjoyed the breather while it lasted, literally. Proper breathing was essential to both combat form and meditation, and Trissiny had been storing her gathering tension in her chest. The caravan was parked for several long minutes, presumably while the large cargo cars in the rear were loaded and/or unloaded, and she took full advantage of the time to breathe slowly and evenly, without slipping into full meditation.

Thus, she was calm enough not to be overly perturbed when a man entered her car.

“Good day!” he said cheerily, straightening. He was an older gentleman, well-dressed and very round about the middle, with a jowly face accentuated by bushy, steel-colored sideburns. “Ah, a Sister! Excellent, I was just wondering why a pretty girl was sitting alone in a car. Usually the lads would be all over you. Don’t mind if I share, do you? It’s filling up back there, and a man of my great physical fitness is less welcome where the seats must be squeezed into.” He chortled, patting his plump belly.

“The caravan is open to all,” she said politely, forcing a smile. “Please, be welcome.” It was so formal as to be stilted, but she couldn’t just up and say she didn’t mind his company. Avei frowned upon lies, even little social ones.

“Many thanks, my dear, many thanks.” He grunted as he lowered himself onto the bench opposite her, sliding over so as to grip the handhold bolted to the wall of the caravan. “Whoof! As often as I ride these things, you’d think I’d grow accustomed to the acrobatics it takes getting in and out of them. Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” He extended a hand to her. “I’m the Emperor’s eyes on the frontier! Of course, the Emperor has more eyes than a nest of spiders, and do please remind me of that if I start to sound like I think I’m important.” His pale eyes twinkled with good humor.

“Trissiny Avelea,” she replied, shaking his hand. His eyes flicked over her and she tensed, but it was nothing like the gaze Jebediah Jenkins had dragged across her. In fact, Mr. Paxton seemed to be looking at her armor, not her body; his eyes darted from bracers to boots to divided leather skirt, without lingering on her breastplate the way too many men did. She saw the moment when he absorbed the fact that her Avenic armor was silver rather than bronze.

“Omnu’s breath,” he exclaimed, settling back in his own seat and regarding her wide-eyed. “Forgive if I’m impertinent, Ms. Avelea, but…would you be a paladin?”

“I am.” She forced a small smile. At least he knew the proper way to address a Sister of Avei. He was the first man she’d met on her journey who did.

“Bless my old soul!” he enthused. “I’d heard that Avei had called a new paladin, but… Well, this is a rare privilege, ma’am! An honor, it truly is. Wait’ll I tell the grandchildren I rode the Rail with a paladin!” He laughed aloud. “Now, you be sure to tell me if I’m bothering you, Ms. Avelea. I do tend to let the old mouth run away with me sometimes.”

“I don’t mind,” she replied, and found that she meant it. Trissiny was not used to men; obviously, she’d been around them before, as the Sisters of Avei were not a cloistered order. But briefly or at a distance, usually; those men who weren’t shy about being around Sisters had been strongly encouraged to keep away from the novices. Still, Heywood Paxton was one of the least menacing individuals she’d ever met.

“And would you be on quest, then?” he asked enthusiastically. “Not that you need pay any mind to old me, of course! I shall gladly shove off if told to. But I’m heading out to Sarasio on the Emperor’s business, and I should be glad of the company, I don’t mind telling you. If there’s any place that could benefit from a taste of Avei’s fist, that’s it for sure.”

“No,” she said with some hesitation, and a small twinge of guilt. “Actually, I’m going to college. At least for now; that was the goddess’s command. I’m sure she has good reason.” Why did she feel the need to explain herself to this stranger? It wasn’t his business; it wasn’t even hers. If Avei chose to send her paladin to university rather than to the battlefield, well, she was entitled. No matter how Trissiny chafed at what felt like a waste of her calling.

“Goodness me, to college? This line is heading straight out of the civilized territories! Nothing but the Golden Sea, tribes of wild elves and a few frontier towns where we’re…ohhh.” His expression cleared and he nodded sagely. “Last Rock, then?”

“Yes, to Professor Tellwyrn’s University. You’ve heard of it?”

“Indeed I have, Ms. Avelea, indeed I have. You don’t last long in my line of work without knowing who all the players in the Great Game are. Omnu’s breath, I should’ve put that together the moment I noticed you in that armor. My brains are getting as droopy as my jowls, I declare.” He grinned at her with such genuine good humor that she had to smile back.

A sharp retort like the crack of a whip resonanted through their little chamber, and the caravan lurched. Then it began smoothly moving forward; Trissiny found herself pressed back into her seat, while Mr. Paxton had to cling to the handbar and surreptitiously brace his leg against the bench beside her to keep from being poured out of his.

“My goodness, they don’t give us much time to get settled, do they?” He grinned cheerily. “I can’t imagine how ticket holders ever manage to get into their cars on time.”

“Ticket holders?”

“Oh, yes,” he explained, “most people must purchase a ticket to ride the Rail; it’s good for only one specific trip, and then you have to buy another to ride again. Laying these Rails isn’t cheap; the Empire has to fund it all somehow!”

“Nobody told me about tickets,” she said in some alarm. They had left the station behind in seconds, and just now were racing past the borders for Calderaas, fast enough that she could barely make out the difference between city and country scenery; it evolved from a grayish blur to a greenish one. And the caravan still accelerated. Paxton’s face was beginning to bead with sweat, from the effort of holding himself in his seat.

“Not to worry, my dear, the Rails are free to Imperial agents and officials of the Church. Which, clearly, includes you!”

“Oh. But…I didn’t even see anyone collecting…that is, none of the guards asked me about…”

“Well, obviously, Station officials know a bit more about the world than the average run of hayseeds who might be riding the Rails. One look at that armor and they’d let you hop into whatever caravan you pleased without so much as a word.”

“Oh,” she said again, now feeling rather guilty. “Oh…I hope I didn’t cheat somebody out of a seat.”

“Nonsense, they never sell enough tickets to fill out a caravan. It leaves some seats open for the likes of us, and if none such come along, well, these things run faster the less weighted down they are. Everybody wins!”

“Except the people who have to pay for passage.”

“Well, I suppose not,” he conceded, his smile fading somewhat, “but then again, if they weren’t paying for tickets, the Rails couldn’t run. Then nobody would have them!”

“It just seems unfair,” she murmured.

“Very little in this world is fair, Ms. Avelea,” he replied. For the first time, the cheer had fled his face, leaving a sober and faraway expression. “May you have better luck than I’ve had finding remedies for it.”

The silence that fell in the compartment was strained and awkward. Trissiny feared little, but was unpracticed at social subtleties; she couldn’t decide whether to avoid Paxton’s eyes or meet them, whether to leave the quiet alone or try to fill it.

He took the dilemma out of her hands moments later, when their acceleration finally leveled off. The Surveyor grunted, settling himself back into his seat now that he didn’t have to brace himself into it. “Whew! Every trip an adventure. You know, the Rail cars servicing the interior provinces have buckled belts on each seat for the passengers to strap themselves in. It seems there’s no budget for upgrading old frontier equipment just yet.”

Trissiny nodded, unsure whether she would prefer that. It would be nice not to be tossed around, but she wasn’t at all certain she’d care to be strapped in, either.

“Oh, here comes the wide arc around the Mirror Lakes,” Mr. Paxton said, peering out the window. “Best brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we’re going to—”

And then the ground whipped out from under them. The caravan curved so sharply to the right that its left wall became the new de facto floor; Paxton was tossed against it with a grunt. Only Trissiny’s trained reflexes saved her from a pummeling. Spinning on the bench, she stuck one foot against the wall and the other on the seat opposite, while grabbing her shield as it tried to fly across the car. It was made to endure much more abuse than being dropped, but it had been a gift from the Goddess herself and Trissiny hated to see it handled disrespectfully.

“Almost!” her fellow traveler cried with a grin. “More than a dozen trips on this line; one day I’ll have that timing down exactly.” She grinned back. The man’s good humor really was infectious.

The car leveled out so abruptly that they were both tossed back in the opposite direction. Paxton slid along his bench, this time very nearly tumbling to the floor; Trissiny managed to pivot in midair, never releasing her hold on her shield, again bracing herself with a foot against the opposite seat.

They blinked and stared at each other, both pale, and then at her boot, which had struck down directly between his legs on the edge of the bench. Had he slid six inches farther, he’d have come to grief on her greave.

“I’m sorry!” she blurted, quickly folding herself back into her own bench.

“Hah, no harm done,” he reassured her, pulling a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and mopping his face. “Though that’s a nearer miss than I usually have before even getting off the caravan!”

“Are they always this bad?”

“Well, depends on the Rail you ride. They try to lay them in the straightest lines possible, but there are some things that cannot be carved through. It’s when the Rail has to dodge around obstacles that we have trouble! But that’s the price we pay for speed. You know, when I first started out in the Emperor’s service, the journey from Calderaas to Last Rock would have been weeks. Now, we should be there within another five minutes, and I’ll be safely to Sarasio not more than fifteen after that.”

“I believe,” Trissiny said, shifting on her seat, “I like that idea of belted seats very much, the more I think about it. Why didn’t they put those into the caravans in the first place?”

“Ah! You see, the enchantments that make these beauties run are still newfangled enough that much of the older generation doesn’t trust them, my dear. When this caravan was built, there was nobody to ride it but soldiers, Imperial agents and adventurers heading to the frontier. You know, the sort of folk who aren’t apt to put up a fuss about their safety or comfort.” He edged toward the opposite wall, getting a good grip on the handlebar and bracing both legs against her bench. “Common folks riding the Rails are a pretty new event, considering, and few enough of them take these outer lines. You’ll want to brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we’re coming up on the worst stretch of this particular journey.”

She slid her shield against the wall opposite him, sat down on it, gripped the bar and placed a foot against the far bench. Not a moment too soon; the caravan changed course with a wrench that drew a grunt from her, even as it flattened Mr. Paxton against the other wall of the car.

What followed was even worse than her first trip down from the mountainous territory of Viridill. The Rail apparently dodged back and forth through some kind of obstacle course, yanking them first one way and then the other before they had time to compensate. She couldn’t spare the attention to try to study the passing scenery, keeping her arms and legs constantly tense against the forces seeking to toss her about the car. Paxton kept his grip on his handlebar, though at one point lost his seat and was flung full-length across the bench, still clinging to the wall, and only recovered his position upon being shoved back into it. Trissiny quickly lost track of the passage of time; her arms and legs were growing sore, and even her jaw started to ache from the effort of holding it closed. Letting it bounce was a sure way to bite off a chunk of her tongue.

As suddenly as the chaos had begun, it ended. The caravan sailed along in near silence and perfect balance, its two shaken passengers blinking at each other.

“Is it over?” she asked uncertainly.

“For the moment,” he replied, heaving himself back onto the bench with grunt; he’d not managed to avoid a tumble to the floor in the last few moments. “Whew! They really should post warnings; that’s one of the worst stretches in the entire Rail network, you know. Not much else is even half so bad.” He shifted about on his seat, straightening his rumpled clothes.

“What exactly were we dodging around?” She resettled herself, surreptitiously stretching tensed muscles. Trissiny felt a moment of envy for her trunk, safely lashed in below her seat.

“Why, that’s the Green Belt, so they call it. It’s a whole network of elven forests, separated by fairly small stretches of open grassland. Different tribes of elves, you see, and they’d worked out a solution to their border conflicts by making sure they weren’t even in the same forest. All this was long before the Empire, or even any humans living in this area.” He chuckled, dabbing sweat from his face again. “So when the first Surveyors came to find a route for the Rail, they ran into ill luck. Oh, the elves were very polite, as they always are, but dead set against letting the Rail come through any of their woodland. Finally, one poor fool lost patience and told them it would have to be done whether they liked it or not.” He laughed aloud, shaking his head. “As I heard it, they politely told him to invite the Emperor to try it.”

“I’m a little surprised he didn’t,” she replied. “The Empire conquered every other human nation on the continent, after all. Aren’t elves a bit…primitive?”

“Well, yes and no!” He smiled broadly, clearly enjoying his role as storyteller. “They’re not primitive in the sense of lacking magic and sophistication of their own; they just choose to live a little closer to nature than we do. It’s been a long time since Imperial agents chose to mistake the one for the other. For all our new magics and enchantments, the elves are something the Empire is wise not to provoke. Makes for a ghastly muddle, with them living in their own enclaves all across Imperial territory. The Surveyors finally chose to mark off the elven provinces as ‘reserves,’ and leave ’em alone.”

“Hm.” Absently, she ran a hand along the edge of her shield, pondering. “I seldom met any back home, and then only one or two at a time. They seemed rather standoffish, as a rule…”

“Anybody’ll act different traveling in foreign lands than they would at home, surrounded by kinsmen.”

“Professor Tellwyrn is an elf,” Trissiny mused.

“That she is!” Paxton nodded, grinning. “An old one, and one of the most notorious people alive of any race. Not had the pleasure of meeting her myself, and for that I can’t decide if I’m grateful or disappointed. Ah, we’re coming up on the last stretch of our run, Ms. Avelea. Hold tight now!”

She swiftly followed his instruction, but it was not nearly as bad as before. The Rail curved in another long sweep to her right, but this one much more shallow. Trissiny got a good grip on her handle and had no trouble staying seated, though the centrifugal force tried to tug her back across the bench.

“If you crane your neck a bit, Ms. Avelea, you can see your destination! I recommend it, Last Rock is quite a sight from a distance.”

Indeed it was. She had to press her cheek to the glass to manage a good view, but it was worth the minor discomfort. They were long past the hilly region surrounding Calderaas and even the elven forests; here was low, rolling scrubland, fading before her eyes into the Golden Sea up ahead, the huge and very magical stretch of prairie the occupied the heart of the continent. The Empire had encircled it entirely, but the Golden Sea was much larger within than without; some theorized one could travel into it forever, and never reach the other side. It was a territory that could not truly be explored, much less conquered, but the Emperor did the best he could, establishing a perimeter of forts and settlements along its frontier. One of these was the tiny town of Last Rock.

The town itself was a small and rather sad cluster of buildings dwarfed by the mountain from which it drew its name; rising straight up from the plain with not so much as a hill within sight, the Rock itself was tall enough to be taken seriously in most mountain ranges, and seemed utterly colossal in its flat environs. Wedge-shaped, it formed a rising prow cutting into the Golden Sea itself, falling sharply in rocky cliffs from its highest edges, but sloping up gently from the other side, in an incline that was no steeper than the average staircase. It resembled a long, narrow plateau tilted up with one edge sunk into the ground.

Now, a path ran from the town of Last Rock up toward its peak, and the upper quarter of the mountain was covered with the spires and terraces of the University. Her home for the next four years.

Trissiny eased back into her seat, against the force of the curve. They had already drawn too close for her to get a solid look at anything, and she didn’t care to look like an overeager child with her face mashed against the glass.

“Not bad, is it?” her seatmate said with a grin. “Ah, the things there are to see along this Frontier. And all over the Empire, for that matter…well, no rush. I expect you of all people will become plenty acquainted with it in time.”

“I expect so,” she murmured. As the curve of the Rail leveled out, she slid along her bench away from him, gripped her shield in one hand and braced both feet against the seat opposite. As if on cue, the caravan decelerated sharply, seeking to pitch her face-first against the front wall.

Trissiny didn’t let out her breath until the caravan finally came to a full stop with a muted squeal. Paxton sighed in unison with her, again straightening his coat. “Well, I believe this is your stop, ma’am. May I just say again that it has been an honor?”

“I appreciate your company,” she replied, this time with a genuine smile. “And the information.”

“Oh, pish tosh, just an old man’s ramblings about all the things he’s seen. Trust me, you’d find it much less interesting if you had to endure it more than once.”

She bent to unfasten her trunk and pull it out from under the seat, exchanging a grin with him one more time as she slung her shield onto her back.

“Still…it was a much better journey than the last one. May I offer you a blessing Mr. Paxton?”

His grin vanished at once into a nearly awestruck expression. “Oh! Well, that is…if—if you feel it’s… I mean, I’d be honored.”

Smiling, Trissiny reached across the narrow compartment to place a hand on his brow, not minding the sweat in his hair. A soft golden glow rose about them, seemingly from the air itself; she felt her own aches washing away in proximity to the divine power, though it was merely being channeled through her, and into the man beneath her palm.

“Peace and Justice be upon you, friend,” she intoned softly, hearing the resonance in her voice of the Goddess echoing, “and Avei watch your path.”

Trissiny let her hand fall, enjoying the serenity that always came in the aftermath of calling on Avei. Heywood Paxton’s face held an expression of almost childlike wonder.

“I…I swear you took ten years off me. Ms. Avelea, I don’t know how to…”

“Just be as kind to the next person you travel with, as well,” she replied.

“Oh, that I shall. This has been a real gift, ma’am… A very rare privilege.” He trailed off, seeming at a loss for words for once.

With a final smile at him, Trissiny pushed open the compartment door and stepped out onto the platform of Last Rock.

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