Tag Archives: Isolde Fraunsteldt

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“The surface traces have already faded, your Majesty,” Colonel Azhai reported. “They likely began as soon as you opened the bathroom door; based on your description of the binding spell’s collapse, that was almost certainly the trigger to break it. A more in-depth analysis requires scrying of all affected surfaces, which my people are now doing. My apologies for the intrusion upon your apartments. We will be finished and gone as quickly as possible.”

“How much detail do you expect to find?” Eleanora asked.

Azhai pursed her lips in irritation. “I hesitate to make a prediction, your Majesty. A mage of Tellwyrn’s caliber is capable of arranging the spell to void all traces upon its collapse, in which case whether we can find anything will become a test of the Azure Corps’s skill against hers. Both parties have avoided that contest until now, so I’m unsure how to call it. Based on Tellwyrn’s known personality, however, it’s just as likely she didn’t bother. I must caution your Majesty again that I do not expect to learn anything of practical strategic value from this, either way. Containment spells of this kind are old, and quite standard.”

“Yes, so you’ve said,” Eleanora replied with a hint of impatience. “I understand, Colonel. Policy and principle demand as thorough an investigation as we can perform, however. Anything we may learn can be filed away against future incursions by Tellwyrn or other arcane threats. An ever more relevant concern, now that the city hosts at least one blue dragon as a welcomed guest.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” Azhai said calmly. She looked more the part of the soldier than the sorceress; a stocky, square-faced woman in her fifties, with iron-gray hair and the rigid posture instilled by habitual military discipline. In truth, Eleanora rather liked the woman. Manaan Azhai was intimidated by nothing, including her Empress. The faint hint of ire she had just expressed had been known to reduce some of the Palace’s staff to gibbering puddles of frantic apology.

“Again, your Majesty—”

“Stop apologizing,” Eleanora ordered the Imperial Guardsman in exasperation. “The invasion of my personal space notwithstanding, neither I nor the Emperor, nor anyone else, was threatened. And had her intentions been hostile, there is little you could have done.”

“Yes, your Majesty,” the soldier said, still visibly unhappy. Well, it was good that the Imperial Guard took their duties so seriously, but she wouldn’t stand for them to start simpering about. Hopefully their embarrassment over this could be channeled into greater effort in the future—even though, as she had twice had to remind him now, they were by no means at fault.

Colonel Azhai cleared her throat discreetly. “There is another thing, your Majesty. Lady Isolde having been the focus of the spell, we may be able to learn more by examining her directly and in detail. A living person retains traces of magic in a different way entirely than inanimate objects, and it is more difficult to purge them. However, such scrying methods are by nature somewhat intrusive. I would not wish to—”

“Count me in,” Isolde said sharply. She nodded to Azhai, then to Eleanora. “Anything I can contribute, anything at all, you need only ask. It would be my pleasure.”

The Empress gave her a nod in return, along with a very tiny smile, the warmest she dared considering all the soldiers, servants, and mages now teeming about her chambers. It wasn’t as if her relationship with Isolde was a secret, but there were appearances to be maintained in front of others. That she took the care to maintain them sent a message in and of itself. As to the point, she well understood; there were few experiences as humiliatingly disempowering as being effortlessly manhandled by an archmage, and she wasn’t about to stand in the way of Isolde striking back at Tellwyrn, in whatever tiny way she could manage.

“That is greatly appreciated, my lady,” Azhai said diplomatically. “Any traces will fade rapidly, so time is a factor. If you would be good enough to join my scryers in our post?”

“Lead on, Colonel,” Isolde said, giving Eleanora a final smile before following the battlemage out into the hall. The Empress allowed herself to watch her go for a few seconds. There had been time only for a lingering hug when she had first entered the bathroom to retrieve her, and then…all this.

Another Imperial Guard entered as soon as the women had departed, marching up to the Empress and saluting crisply. “Your Majesty, the Emperor has been informed of these events and is on his way back to the harem wing.”

“I gave instructions that Imperial business was not to be disrupted for this,” Eleanora said dangerously. “I was explicitly clear.”

“Your orders were obeyed, your Majesty,” the soldier replied, unperturbed. A veteran of Palace service, he knew when her burgeoning fury was for dramatic effect, as opposed to promising real suffering, and Eleanora never penalized her people for doing their jobs. “His Majesty’s session with the security council concluded earlier than expected, and we notified him upon his emergence without interrupting the meeting.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Discreetly, I hope?”

“Of course, your Majesty. None of the other gentlemen present were permitted to overhear.”

“Good.” Very good. In point of fact, she had every intention of informing both Vex and Panissar of this invasion, the matter being relevant to both of their duties, but her general policy was that Bishop Darling needed to know not one more iota of information about Imperial business than absolutely necessary, and ideally less. He was likely to hear some version of these events anyway, eventually, but neither the man himself nor any of the powers to which he reported had any business getting involved in this. As for the Hand… They, too, would learn of it all soon, but she was more unsure of them by the hour.

As if summoned by her very misgivings, suddenly he was there.

“So,” the black-coated Hand said coldly, regarding her through narrowed eyes with an expression she had never seen one of them use, much less directed at herself, “you saw fit to deliberately deprive the Emperor of vital intelligence pertaining to this intrusion into the Palace.”

He had not been in the room previously, nor entered through any of its doors; Hands had never evinced any teleportation ability.

A split-second lull occurred surrounding the Empress, while in the background servants carried on tidying up the periphery of the room as if their diligence could erase the fact of Tellwyrn’s intrusion, while Azure Corps battlemages buzzed around the bathroom, conducting their own business. Closer at hand, though, the soldiers froze. Hands of the Emperor were known to posses the highest possible degree of trust, yet this one had just spoken directly to the Empress in a clearly accusatory manner.

An instant later, the two Imperial Guards subtly shifted to stand closer to her. Only one was carrying a staff, but he altered his grip almost imperceptibly. Half a second after that, the Army battlemage who had been attending Colonel Azhai likewise turned to face the Hand directly. Despite everything, Eleanora felt a little glow of satisfaction at the tiny show of loyalty. None of these troops would get aggressive with a Hand, and in all likelihood would be swiftly demolished by one if a fight broke out, but in a moment where their loyalties were confused and tested, it seemed their instinct was to defend her.

“The Emperor, as you just heard, has been informed,” she said in total calm, folding her hands at her waist. “In my opinion, the intrusion did not constitute a threat, and thus did not merit the disruption of Imperial business. I gave instructions that his Majesty was to be notified the moment doing so would not interfere with the prosecution of his duties. This was done. Alarming as Tellwyrn’s penetration of Palace defenses is, every step of the staff’s response has been extremely satisfactory.”

His nostrils flared once in a silent snort, and he opened his mouth to speak again.

“And you,” Eleanora continued in a lower tone, “will never again speak to me in that fashion. Is that understood?”

The Hand’s expression did not alter. “Allow me to be clear, your Majesty. I serve the Emperor. Any aid rendered to you in the course of this duty is entirely ancillary. Any threat to his Majesty, from any source, will be swiftly met and destroyed by the Emperor’s Hands.”

She was not blind to the danger of this situation. Tellwyrn had been right; something was wrong with this man. Hands had been a fixture in her life ever since she had moved into the Palace with Sharidan, and for all these years they had been consistent, even uniform. It was as if they shared a personality—an admirably discreet, disciplined personality. Further, no one had ever so much as hinted that she of all people had less than perfect trust. Something was affecting their minds—and considering the physical feats of which these men were capable, that made them an unparalleled threat, positioned as they were everywhere in the Palace. The three soldiers nearby and reflexively defending her could likely not bring him down. If the entire group of Azure Corps battlemages saw what was going on and intervened…maybe.

“That was perilously close to an accusation,” Eleanora said. Carefully, carefully. She could not afford to back down, both for the Hand’s sake and that of those watching. Weakness could never be displayed in her position. At the same time, she could not be too confrontational; he was clearly looking for a fight, and she couldn’t permit one to be found. “You are out of line and behaving unacceptably. Publicly sowing dissension at this level of the Imperial government poses a greater threat to his Majesty than anything Tellwyrn did today.”

That brought him up short; he actually blinked. Gratifying as it was to stymie his aggression, it only underlined the problem. Hands were never so expressive, or so easily discomfited.

“An apology would be appropriate,” Eleanora said in the same emotionless tone, “but not at this time, with this audience. The Emperor will of course want your full accounting of events at a time of his own choosing.”

She had intended it diplomatically, to throw him a bone and negate hostility, but his eyes immediately narrowed further, and she realized her error. To a belligerent, insecure mind, her acknowledgment of his importance took on another character entirely.

“That,” the Hand said coldly, “was perilously close to a threat.”

“I’m certain neither of us has anything to fear from the truth, or from our Emperor,” she said mildly. Could he hear her heart pounding? What were his powers? Dryads? Sharidan was damn well going to explain this in detail, and damn her for not insisting on it years ago. At least Isolde was out of the room; she would have defended Eleanora possibly to the extent of starting a fight.

“Just so,” the Hand snapped. “He is on his way here. You will wait to be questioned at his leisure. Secure her,” he ordered the two Imperial Guards.

A beat passed; the battlemage was wide-eyed and clearly frighteningly out of his depth. The Imperial Guards, fortunately, were made of sterner stuff.

“This chamber has been swept and secured, sir,” one said crisply. “The Empress is safe.”

The Hand actually bared his teeth, like a feral dog. “That is not what—”

“Ah, thank you.” Sharidan himself swept into the room, trailing Imperial Guards and for some damned reason his little pet Milanda, and Eleanora barely avoided physically sagging with relief. “I’ve been assured that all is well, here, but nonetheless I appreciate the certainty that my family is defended.”

He strode up to the group, a very picture of unflappable calm despite the very deliberate emphasis, and placed a hand on his Hand’s shoulder. “All’s well? Anything further to report?”

The Hand tightened his jaw. “The Azure Corps is still investigating, sir; a full report on the intrusion itself will be forthcoming. The Empress delayed notifying you.”

“Yes, quite so,” Sharidan said easily. “Interrupting my meeting would not have disturbed business unduly, but I prefer not to let it be known to some of those who were present that anything worth the interruption had occurred. Quick thinking as always, Eleanora. I shudder to think of managing this place without your aid.”

“Of course,” she said neutrally.

The Hand drew a short breath and released it in a soft huff. “Well, then. Since she and the Lady Isolde are the only direct witnesses—”

“Quite so,” the Emperor interrupted. “I was told there is no active threat, but I’m still understandably curious about this. I would like to hear your account in private, Eleanora. I trust your insight more than anyone’s.”

Again, the emphasis; the Hand squinted, but actually backed off a half-step. “Shall I have the other woman brought?”

“Isolde is currently under examination by the Azure Corps,” Eleanora said swiftly. “She is highly annoyed by Tellwyrn’s treatment of her and eager to help in any way, but I think it would inconvenience the mages to have her answering questions while they are trying to scry.”

“Quite so,” Sharidan repeated, nodding calmly. “That gives us an itinerary, then. We can speak with her after I’ve heard your account, and by that point she’ll be more than entitled to a little rest, I think. Would you join me in my own chamber, dear?”

“Of course,” she replied, taking his proffered arm.

The Hand hovered irritatingly about them as Sharidan led her from the room, Milanda trailing along behind their little procession. Hands never hovered. They were a silent presence, preternaturally skilled at being just where they were needed without being in the way. The Imperial couple regally ignored him until reaching the door of Sharidan’s personal chamber, at which point he turned to the offending Hand.

“Not to disparage the Azure Corps,” he said smoothly, “but we both know you have means of seeing things they do not. I want you to have another look at the Empress’s chamber, just for thoroughness’s sake.”

“Your Majesty,” the man said unhappily, “I would rather attend—”

“And,” Sharidan continued, “please be as quick as you can without sacrificing certainty. I’ll want you at hand when we speak with Lady Isolde, in case you can detect traces on her person that the Corps might miss.”

“Yes, sir,” the Hand said, bowing with ill grace, then turned on his heel and stalked back down the hall.

Milanda, to Eleanora’s irritation, slipped into the room ahead of them while this was transpiring. Not until they had all entered and the door was firmly shut behind them did the Emperor release a pent-up sigh of obvious relief, allowing consternation to show on his face.

“Eleanora, are you all right?” he demanded, grasping her by the shoulders.

“Fine,” she said wryly. “As is Isolde, albeit justly angered. The same goes for me. Tellwyrn, much as I dislike acknowledging it and despite her continuing overweening arrogance, is not the enemy here. In point of fact, she came specifically to give me a warning which I have just learned to be entirely justified.”

His eyes cut to the door as he released her and stepped back. “There’s a Hand at Last Rock right now. Is that one also…?”

“Yes,” she said curtly. “And she had several other fascinating tidbits to drop. Sharidan, they are all like this. What is going on, and what in Omnu’s name do dryads have to do with it?”

At that, he looked sharply at her, then at Milanda, who stood a few yards away, watching them in silence. Finally, he sighed and shook his head ruefully.

“Especially in light of all this, I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that Tellwyrn knows more than she ought. What else did she tell you?”

“That is not the point here,” Eleanora snapped, then cast a sharp look at Milanda, who to her annoyance did not flinch. “And does this discussion really require an audience?”

“When the Guard informed me of the break-in,” he replied evenly, “the message he relayed from you included an assurance that there was no crisis or danger. As such, I made a point of setting a leisurely pace in returning here. I don’t have to tell you the trouble that could result from anyone seeing me hurry through the halls for any reason, especially as we had to pass through public spaces. Had that been the end of it, there’s no telling how long I might have taken to reach you, or how that exchange you were having with the Hand would have progressed. I made it back this quickly because Milanda had been watching you, and ran to get me as soon as the Hand appeared.”

“I see,” Eleanora said, giving Milanda a grudging nod. The young lady bowed to her, face impressively impassive.

“In this room with me are the two living people I trust the most,” the Emperor continued firmly, “which is why it pains me to have to admit that I can’t give you the explanations you want, Eleanora.”

“I see,” she repeated acidly. “Can you at least explain why you can’t explain?”

“That, yes,” Sharidan replied with the ghost of a smile. “You understand the mechanic of state secrets which are Sealed to the Throne?”

“If they are spoken, the Hands immediately know,” she said. “Which, now that I consider it, sounds far more like a fairy geas than any arcane enchantment I ever heard, and makes this dryad business far more sensible.”

“Exactly,” he said with a sigh. “As part of the same effect, Eleanora, I can’t reveal to you where Hands come from, how they are made, or how they work. Physically cannot.”

“You know, Sharidan, how much I respected your mother,” she said with barely repressed fury, “but now that the moment is here, I find myself totally unsurprised that her paranoia is still putting us all in danger.”

He sighed and shook his head. “Well, regardless, I have to try to fix this…”

“You vanished at the first sign that one of the Hands was acting out of character,” she said sharply. “Didn’t you try already?”

“I did what I could,” he said reluctantly. “The truth is, I do not fully understand how…they work. No one does. I don’t know how the geas could have been affected, but the—” He broke off, then grimaced. “This is hard to talk about; I’m not used to being interrupted by my own… All right, this much I think I can say: any attempt to repair or change the magic powering the Hands will be, essentially, fumbling in the dark.”

“How dangerous is it?” Milanda asked suddenly.

“Extremely,” Sharidan said, giving her a solemn look. “At least potentially. The magic itself is not meant to be directly harmful, but accessing it is…hazardous.”

“Very well, then,” she said, nodding, and turning to look at the Empress. “We have contingencies in place for situations like this.”

“Exactly so,” Eleanora agreed, nodding back.

“Now just a moment,” Sharidan began.

“You wait a moment,” Eleanora ordered. “Thanks to these haywire Hands of yours, the Palace is not safe, and whatever secret lair you vanish into to govern them is equally unsafe, if not moreso. With no heir to the Silver Throne, your safety is absolutely paramount and cannot be risked. The Empire can survive losing its ruler, but the end of the Tirasian bloodline would precipitate a crisis.” She also had to discuss sylphreed with him, but set that aside for the moment in favor of the more urgent matter at hand. “Adapting our secret evacuation protocol to get you out of here without the Hands knowing will be very tricky, but we can do it.”

“The hard part will be keeping them off the scent,” Milanda said, frowning. “We can arrange a brief distraction that should suffice for even them. This matter is unlikely to be settled in a few hours or days, though. Possibly weeks. And they will find him if they decide to go looking.”

“It’s not that I don’t see your point, but this is not the solution!” Sharidan protested. “I have to fix this, or the problem won’t go away.”

“But you don’t know how,” Milanda pressed, gliding forward to wrap her arms around one of his. “Your Majesty, you said no one does. Is there any fae user you trust to try?”

He sighed heavily. “No. Anyone with the skill… It would take the likes of a green dragon, or perhaps a grove Elder, and the harm they could do with access to the—” He broke off as if something had seized his tongue, and grimaced in aggravation.

“So whoever goes to work on this will be feeling their way blind,” Eleanora said. “That places them in even more danger than the…geas…itself poses. Especially if there are dryads involved.”

“So each of our roles in this are quite obvious,” Milanda said, nodding. “Her Majesty will be needed to remain a public face in the Palace; with the Hands as they are, that places her in enough danger as it is. Her safety cannot be risked any further by exposing her to whatever magical mechanism has gone faulty and caused all this.”

“We will have to involve Vex in this,” Eleanora said thoughtfully. “His people can help secure the Palace, Hands or no Hands. They’ll also be necessary to secure you, once we get you safely away from the Palace.”

“And,” Milanda continued inexorably, “that leaves me to handle the Hands, geas, dryads, whatever.”

“Out of the question!” Sharidan burst out. “You have no idea what’s down there!”

“Then you’ll have to prepare me as best you can,” she said calmly. “Unless there is anyone else you trust more? Because it sounds to me as if trust is a greater concern than competence in fae magic, in this case. You are certainly no witch, yourself.”

“Milanda,” he said in a strained tone, wrapping an arm around her waist, “I don’t doubt your willingness or your cleverness, but this…”

“Now, see here,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “The Empire is positively awash with doe-eyed, empty-headed young beauties who would love to share your bed and offer nothing else of value. If that’s what you wanted, you’ve had plenty of opportunity to collect them. Instead, you have me. I am no one’s concubine, Sharidan, and I’ll not be treated as such. I am a courtier in this Palace, a loyal citizen, and…” Her tone grew more gentle, and she reached up to place a hand against his cheek. “I love you. You need to let me help.”

Eleanora sighed. “Leadership is sacrifice; this isn’t news to any of us. You know she’s right, Sharidan.”

He gave her a bitter look. “If it had been Isolde…”

“Then,” she replied flatly, “she would march straight into the danger. I would send her off without hesitation, and wait for the appropriate moment of privacy to weep into my pillow for her. You know me well enough to give me that much credit.”

The Emperor drew in a long breath, then pulled Milanda firmly against himself, squeezing her close and resting his chin atop her dark curls. She burrowed obligingly into his chest, rocking them slightly back and forth. Eleanora averted her eyes—out of respect, not embarrassment. Their peculiar little family had long since had to adapt its own ideas and practices concerning personal privacy.

“All right,” Sharidan said finally, releasing Milanda. “We have the bones of a plan, and a few points yet to refine. Best work out as much as we can now; I don’t know how long that excuse will keep the Hands off me, and we can’t afford to squander fresh ones, as we will certainly need to distract them again in the near future.”

“I’ll send for Quentin as soon as we are done here,” Eleanora agreed, nodding.

“And in the meantime…” He sighed and set his jaw firmly. “I will tell you as much as I can about what to expect…down there. You had better hear this too, Eleanora. Just in case. First and most importantly, whatever you may find in that…place…” He turned his gaze fully on Milanda, his eyes serious nearly to the point of being frantic. “Do not let it out.”

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10 – 12

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Jenell rapped on the door a third time, her expression growing increasingly sour, and stepped back from it. As before, there was no sound from within the room.

It was still before sunrise; the sky peeking through the windows behind her was gray, but light enough to reveal the silhouettes of trees, and the shapes of the Viridill mountains beyond. She folded her arms, tapping a foot impatiently, then stopped and corrected her posture when another woman rounded the corner of the hall, strolling her way with a pastry in hand.

She was a little older than Jenell and not as pretty (a point of data she always noticed about other women, Avenist training be damned), wearing the long but clingy robes common to this temple, with a pink lotus badge at the shoulder. The Izarites here in Adhran had their sigil embroidered directly onto their robes, rather than using the enamel pins favored by the cults in Tiraas. The priestess gave her a warm smile and a nod of greeting; Jenell snapped to attention and saluted silently.

Not that she was obligated to, under the circumstances, but one of the Legionnaires stationed to guard this temple had taught her that trick the night before, after she had been cornered three times by clerics and offered everything from hugs and candy to therapy and sex. They meant well, but it got very obnoxious, very quickly. However, they wouldn’t bother a soldier they thought was on duty. Hence the saluting.

The woman passed around the corner on the other end of the hall, and Jenell scowled, stepped forward again, and rapped on the door for the fourth time.

She gave him to the slow count of ten, then raised her gauntleted fist and began hammering viciously on the wood.

It was absolutely amazing how long that went on before getting a response; by the time the door was opened from within, she was starting to expect another priest to come see what the racket was about before the room’s occupant did. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.

Unfortunately, it immediately looked like her troubles were only beginning.

Schwartz was a wreck. The puffy bags under his eyes almost hid them, and he slumped against the door frame, apparently unable to balance on his own. He had the worst case of bed hair she had ever seen or imagined; in fact, it was almost unbelievable that he’d gotten it to stick up that much without effort and the application of some kind of product. His eyes were open unevenly, the left one barely slitted. As she took in the sight of him, he blinked, slowly, eyelids out of sync.

“Bmwlaah?” Scwhartz enunciated.

“Good morning,” she said crisply. “Time to go.”

He blinked again, more evenly this time. “Uh…bm. Carvin.”

“No, but close. You really don’t handle sleep deprivation well, do you?”

“Wha…I the…s’fin…” He paused to yawn widely enough to display molars. “Wha?”

“You’ve slept about four hours,” Jenell reported. “Based on your comments yesterday it was your second night in a row of not getting enough rest. I see we’ll have to avoid that in the future, if you’re going to be around much longer. Now get dressed, we have to go pick up the Bishop.”

“Was…saw th’elves,” he said blearily, still blinking his eyes.

“Yes,” she said patiently, “and that was the last interesting thing that happened yesterday, so I suppose I can forgive you for blurring out the subsequent details. You were half-asleep by the time we got here. You can nap in the carriage, we need to…”

She trailed off, staring. His eyes had drifted shut and he slumped against the door frame, gradually sliding forward and down. As she watched, he actually began to snore again.

Jenell sighed, gritted her teeth, and pulled off one of her gauntlets. Schwartz snorted and jerked when she thrust the tips of her forefinger and thumb into his left nostril. When she yanked out a few tiny hairs, he let out a yowl and shot upright, eyes wide and blinking.

“There,” she said. “Is that better?”

“Ow!” he protested, clutching his nose.

“Sorry,” she said, insufficiently motivated to try for a sincere tone. “It used to work on my dad when I was little. I know you’re tired and not used to it, Mr. Schwartz, but I need you to get ready and be downstairs, in the carriage, in fifteen minutes. We have to go to the Legion barracks and get Bishop Syrinx, then head back to the Abbey. And I will not be late.”

“Legion…barracks…Bishop.” Apparently marginally more alert, he peered around. “We’re not…there? She’s not here?”

“We are at the local Temple of Izara,” Jenell replied. “She left orders to pick her up by seven in the morning. That means we have to go. I would willingly break a few of your limbs to stay off Syrinx’s shit list, so believe you me I will not hesitate to drag you through the halls in whatever state of undress I find you in if you’re not down there in that carriage in fifteen. Clear?”

“Carriage,” he said, yawning hugely. “Broken limbs, yes. Fifteen. Just lemme…”

“Do,” she said curtly. “And don’t fall asleep again. You don’t want to test me on this.”

“M’kay,” he mumbled, turning to shuffle back into the room. Jenell stayed long enough to observe that he was going for the wardrobe, not the bed, before turning and striding back down the hall. She didn’t bother to shut the door. It wasn’t like anyone in this temple would be unused to the sight of a skinny man getting undressed.

On her way back to the temple’s side exit, she paused only to duck into a lavatory and thoroughly wash her hands before putting her gauntlets back on, checking her face in the mirror by habit in the process. Bags under her own eyes, though not as bad as his… She was used to functioning without much sleep, these days.

The stables were positioned around to the side of the temple, out of sight of the exquisitely manicured gardens and main courtyard out front, where guests would not have to behold such mundane trivialities as the horses that brought them—or what those horses left behind. Jenell wasn’t sure if this was due to Izarite doctrines about pleasure and relaxation, or simple old-fashioned snobbery. Likely some combination of the two. The temple did have designated parking for enchanted carriages next to its stables. Not much parking, there being only four slots, but it was something. It surprised her not in the least that some of those who frequented the Temple of Izara were wealthy enough to have such fripperies even in this district—or that the clerics would pander to them. Cults served everyone equally, in theory, but it was the rich whose donations kept things running, and the rich never let anyone forget it.

The carriage, unsurprisingly, was exactly as she had left it last night, after returning from driving the Bishop to the Legion fortress atop the hill. There was no reason it shouldn’t have been, considering the area, but Jenell had learned to assume the worst about everyone and everything, and let her life be filled with pleasant surprises. She climbed into the driver’s seat and activated the control rune, listening to the hum of the enchantments that purred to life from beneath. They were barely audible while parked.

A figure appeared in the temple door and headed toward her, waving. Jenell nodded politely back, considering repeating her salute trick for a moment, but decided against it. He was obviously coming right for her anyway, and in any case he would know her situation, having had it explained last night.

The high priest in charge of this temple had been introduced to her as Brother Nansin, no other title being given, not that she understood how Izarite rankings worked. He was a tall, slender man with broad Western features on a narrow face. Not bad-looking, but not one to turn heads. She had noticed that; it seemed the disciples of the goddess of love ought to be pretty people as a rule. This was Jenell’s first chance to spend prolonged time in their company, and found them to be generally average-looking.

“Good morning, Private Covrin,” he said politely, coming to a stop beside the idling carriage.

“Brother Nansin,” she replied. “Thank you again for your hospitality. I hope we weren’t too much of an imposition.”

“Guests are never an imposition, of any kind,” he said firmly, but with a warm smile. “The followers of Izara are here to provide for the needs of all who come to us. I appreciate Bishop Syrinx’s willingness to bring us up to date on the dangerous events unfolding. Obviously, Avei’s followers will and must take a more central role against such a threat, but it seems likely there will be many people hurting in the near future, if you are not successful in putting it to a swift end. We shall stand ready.”

Well, he was definitely a ranking priest. No one else could make a speech out of “good morning, and thanks.”

“The goddess grant it is so,” she said diplomatically. She could have tried for a solemn tone, but Izarites were supposed to be able to sense emotions and hidden motives; standing this close, he might be aware of her disinterest in the conversation. The most polite course of action seemed to be simple…politeness.

“I’m sorry you must leave us so soon,” Nansin said, still smiling. “Is your friend on the way?”

“I hope so,” Jenell said frankly. “He’s likely to be embarrassed if I have to go fetch him again.”

At that, the priest cracked a more genuine grin. It faded after as second, however, to a pleasant and calmly open look that she recognized, and she stifled a sigh. After last night, she recognized that expression.

“I feel I have to apologize for some of my brethren,” he said. “I didn’t learn until after you had retired last night that several members of the order had approached you. Obviously, they know not to bother the soldiers on duty guarding the temple, but here, a guest is a guest. I hope you weren’t made uncomfortable.”

Well. That hadn’t been quite what she was expecting.

“No harm done,” she said calmly. “I appreciate the good intentions.”

“Good,” he said, nodding, still wearing that caring almost-smile. “We have taken in Legionnaires in the past.”

Jenell went still. “Pardon?”

“Not often,” Nansin continued, “and not permanently. But situations arise from time to time in which a soldier is placed in a position that is not easily resolved through the chain of command. We have some experience in negotiating matters with the Legions to ensure they are protected from reprisal and able to return to duty. Really, it is not so difficult as one might fear. The Legions are nothing if not devoted to justice, and quick to discipline those who abuse their structure at the expense of fellow soldiers. Sometimes it just takes a little outside help to identify who is culpable, and who is a victim.”

“That’s very interesting,” she said stiffly, adopting a bored tone and turning to watch the door for Schwartz.

He followed her gaze, standing in silence for a moment. Not leaving. She repressed another sigh when he began speaking again.

“I assume you are aware of Izara’s gift to her clergy, the ability to feel the emotional needs of those around us.” Nansin hesitated for a moment before continuing, still gazing into the distance. “Of course, I mean no lack of respect to the Sisterhood or the Legions, but… It requires only being in a room with Basra Syrinx to sense that something isn’t right, there.”

He glanced up at her; Jenell stared woodenly ahead, ignoring him now.

“I was, of course, attentive to her warnings and requests when the three of you convened in my office last night,” Nansin went on. “Still, it was impossible for me not to notice, Private Covrin, the way you tense in her presence, and particularly the agitation you feel when she directs her attention at you. Obviously, that doesn’t tell me a whole story, but I have seen enough of humanity to paint a general picture—”

“Brother Nansin.” Jenell turned bodily in her seat, bending over the edge of the humming carriage and leaning down to stare flatly into his face. “Mind. Your own. Business.”

He held her gaze in silence for a long moment, then nodded. “Your privacy is sacrosanct. Anything an Izarite cleric senses in your presence will never be revealed to anyone, unless you request it. Just know, please, that we are never as trapped by circumstances as they make it seem. If you thought you had nowhere to go, Jenell, let me promise you that you can always come here.”

Jenell straightened up and stared icily at the temple’s side door, ignoring him in truth now. They were clearly past the point of politeness, and not at her instigation.

Nansin gave her another moment, then sighed very softly and bowed. “I wish you a safe journey, Private Covrin. Thank you again for the warning you brought us.”

He turned and glided away on long legs, around toward the front gardens this time, rather than back through the side door. Jenell glanced once after him, as he rounded the corner, but thereafter kept her eyes fixed on the side entrance, mentally composing herself.

Fortunately—for him—Schwartz emerged with a few minutes to spare, looking somewhat disheveled but far more functional. His hair had been wetted down and attended to, and was merely mussed rather than disastrous, and nothing was going to hide those bags under his eyes any time soon. He had managed to get into his clothes correctly, though, and was also carrying a bottle filled with dark liquid.

“Hi,” he said, clambering up beside her. “Morning. Very nice people in there, they gave me some strong tea for the trip.” He paused to yawn again. “Hope I didn’t make us late… I’d kill for a cup of coffee right now, but I expect it’s not realistic to expect that to be found outside a port city…”

“Don’t you want to ride in the back?” she said mildly, half-turning to nod at the cushioned seats behind and below.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly. “Well, uh, if it’s a problem, me being up here…?”

“I don’t care,” she said. “This bench isn’t very comfortable, though. With the lack of padding, you’ll feel every bump.”

“That’s fine, it’ll keep me awake,” he replied, managing a weak grin. “I’d just feel… Um, kind of awkward, being ferried around by myself back there, like you were my private driver. Sort of pretentious, y’know? I’ll probably hop in back when we get the Bishop.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, placing her hands on the turning wheel and thrust lever. The carriage’s hum heightened as she guided it forward.

He waited until they had exited the temple grounds and were on their way up the hill toward the fortress before speaking again.

“So… I expect you’ll find this an odd question, but…” He paused, grimacing self-consciously, and fiddled with his bottle of tea. “Why were we in the Temple of Izara?”

Jenell glanced over at him, permitting herself a small smile. “You really don’t function well without sleep, do you?”

“Well, I don’t think anyone does,” he said defensively. “It’s not just the last two days, either… I’d just finished up a research project when Sister Leraine asked me to assist the Bishop, and of course I was honored! But, you know, I’m not used to, uh, field work. Or field work and then half a night’s sleep…” Another yawn forced him to stop, and he took a long swig of tea. “Also, I could really go for some breakfast.”

“They’ll probably give us provisions at the barracks,” she said, focusing on guiding the carriage through the early morning traffic. The semi-rural townsfolk were up with the dawn, though luckily most of them weren’t on the roads yet. Other than the occasional chicken or dog, she had little trouble; the people they saw mostly wanted to stare at them. Or at the carriage, which to her amounted to the same thing.

“So, and I’m sure this was all explained last night and it just went in one ear and out the other… Uh, why were we sleeping in the Izarite temple while Bishop Syrinx went to the Legion fortress?”

“The Bishop felt it was important to inform the Izarites of the possible danger,” Jenell said, her eyes on the road ahead. “Once there, she asked Brother Nansin to put us up for the night. The reasoning, as she explained it, was that our group had clearly been targeted by our mysterious antagonist, and she was likely the primary target. In the event of an elemental attack overnight, she wanted it directed at her, in the presence of a barracks full of Legionnaires. Putting us in a separate place was a security measure, in case the worst happened; we could return to the Abbey and tell Abbess Darnassy what we discovered. The Izarite temple was ideal, since elementals are severely disadvantaged on holy ground, and Izarites in general are almost impossible to dislike, which would make such an attack less likely. At least, that was how she explained it.” She glanced over at him. “Also, where’s your rat? Did you forget her back there?”

“Oh!” Schwartz clapped a hand to his head. “Thanks for reminding me! No, she’s fine, I just dismissed her for the time being. What you were saying about elementals was true—Salyrite temples have protections for multiple kinds of magical beings, but Meesie gets very uncomfortable in other sanctified spaces. Hang on, I’ll—”

The carriage bumped on a loose cobblestone, and he had to grasp the bench for balance, nearly losing his grip on his tea bottle in the process.

“Told you,” Jenell commented.

“Ah, yes, on second thought, I believe I’ll wait to re-summon her until we’re on the way back. Don’t want to leave it too long; she gets depressed without regular attention. But the Legion barracks will be blessed, too, won’t it?”

“Probably,” she said, not bothering to remind him that their eventual destination was the Viridill Abbey, one of the most sacred places in the world.

“Anyhow,” he said, re-settling himself on the bench, “I suppose that all makes sense, when you explain it that way. I mean, honestly, I’m a little puzzled at some of the logic, there, but I’m sure the Bishop knows what she’s doing.”

“I’m sure she does,” Jenell murmured.

“It was good of her to think of protecting us,” he added after another swig of tea, sounding more cheerful. “And the Izarites! Very thoughtful…”

He seemed baffled when she burst out laughing.

“Ah, Schwartz, you are adorable, you know that?”

“Um, well, I…” He actually blushed. “Thanks?”

“Basra Syrinx is probably the only person who can lie to an Izarite priest right to his face and not be called down for it,” she said, her expression growing grim in the aftermath of her sudden mirth. “She was hoping for an attack directed on us. We’re weaker than she is, and we’d have been in the custody of a goddess weaker than hers, as she sees it. That’s what she would have done if she were targeting this group.”

He blinked twice. “I say… But that… Why?”

“She told the truth about one thing,” Jenell said, her eyes fixed on the approaching fortress. “Nobody hates Izarites. Even here in Viridill, where their religion isn’t widely approved of, it’s impossible to truly dislike them. They’re just so harmless. Downright cuddly. One of the biggest problems we face in finding the person behind the elementals is social: he’s probably a member of a community that holds itself apart. Or maybe not, I’m not sure I understand how the witches around here work. But the point is, people would rally against anyone who assaulted a temple of Izara. That would be an ideal outcome from her point of view.”

Schwartz was silent for a moment, staring straight ahead and seeming to forget his tea.

“That’s rather…cold,” he said at last. “Are you… That is, I mean, did she tell you this?”

“Didn’t need to,” Jenell said wearily. “I know how she thinks. You want some good advice, Schwartz, avoid getting on Basra Syrinx’s bad side. You have no idea what that woman is capable of. If you’re lucky, you’ll never have any idea.”

“Herschel,” he said quietly.

“Bless you.”

He grinned at that. “Hah, like I’ve never heard that one before. No, it’s… That’s me. Herschel Schwartz. Fine old Stalweiss name that nobody from Tiraas can pronounce, so I won’t take offense if you mangle it.”

She gave him a long, appraising glance, which he met with a hesitant expression. He was not at all the sort of person with whom she’d have been caught dead associating, in her life before the Legions. Still… He was nice. As banal a thing as that was, she was learning to see the value in it. It had been a long time since she’d talked with anyone who was actually, simply nice. Well, nice and not annoyingly aggressive about it, like the Izarites.

“Jenell,” she said finally, then added with a smile, “when I’m not on duty.”

“Jenell, then,” he said, smiling back. After a moment, he averted his gaze, coughing awkwardly. “Well, ah, anyhow, I appreciate the, er, heads up, as it were. I’ll keep it in mind. Though I suppose it’s to the best the Bishop’s on our side, isn’t it? I mean, sure, if you’ve got to deal with someone that cold, it’s reassuring to know they’re one of the good guys.”

Once again, he seemed confused as to why she was laughing.


 

Quentin Vex was permitted into the Imperial sitting room at his request, needing only to wait for the Imperial Guard manning the door to announce him. Once inside, he bowed deeply, tucking the newspapers he carried under his arm.

Two very attractive young women stood at the back of the room, near the breakfast service, carefully distant from the table where the meal was laid out. Milanda Darnassy and Isolde Fraunsteldt were both youthful and of a curvaceous build, but otherwise a study in contrast: petite and dark-haired, and tall and blonde, respectively. They would be those with whom the Emperor and Empress had spent the previous night, now present to serve breakfast in the absence of servants, one of the more peculiar little customs the Imperial couple had developed. There was always at least one, though the Empress chose to sleep alone about half the time. Also present and discreetly unobtrusive against the wall was a black-coated Hand of the Emperor, this one a pale man on the shortish side.

The Emperor and Empress were having breakfast with a nobleman Vex recognized, and had not expected to find here.

“Your Majesties,” Vex said. “Lord Amfaedred. My humble apologies for intruding.”

“You are forgiven,” Eleanora said mildly. “I assume this is important, Quentin?”

“Important, your Majesties, but not necessarily urgent. I can come back…?”

“Oh, please don’t put state business off for my sake,” Amfaedred said hastily, rising and bowing to his liege. “I thank you deeply for the honor, your Majesty, but I’m sure I have taken up too much of your priceless time as it is. With your permission, I’ll withdraw so Lord Vex can carry on with what I’m sure is very important business.”

“Of course,” Sharidan said, with a knowing little smile. “Thank you for visiting us, milord.”

“The pleasure was entirely mine, your Majesty. Entirely.” With another bow and an unctuous little smile, Lord Amfaedred turned and scurried out of the sitting room with more haste than was seemly.

“My sincere apologies,” Vex repeated as soon as the door had been closed behind him. “I was not aware that you were confronting Amfaedred today.”

The hint of reproach in his tone was so faint it might almost have passed unnoticed. That was still more than virtually anyone else alive could get away with, here.

“It was a spur of the moment idea,” Eleanora said with a mischievous smile. “If we weren’t planning on having him for breakfast, just think how surprised he was to be summoned. Anyway, Quentin, our aims were accomplished. He knows his financing of House Leduc is not a secret. Now we wait.”

“If I gauge the man correctly,” said the Emperor, absently picking at his fish, “he’ll either drop the whole thing, or panic and do something rash. In either case, you will of course have him under close observation?”

“He already is, your Majesty,” Vex replied. “I’ve no doubt I’ll be informed by my assistant that he was here the moment I return to the office. A remarkably capable young lady, but she does enjoy being cheeky.”

“What brings you here so early?” Eleanora asked. “Or should I simply ask how bad it is?”

Vex cleared his throat. “I wonder if your Majesties have seen the papers yet today?”

“Actually, I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper,” Sharidan remarked. “Being that I have an Intelligence service full of individuals who are exorbitantly paid to bring me information before the journalists get to it.”

“Sometimes the news is not newsworthy,” said Vex, taking the papers out from under his arm and approaching the table. “Or rather, it reveals more about the editors than about the world. I trust your Majesties remember the affair last year involving the Black Wreath’s attempt to place columnists in all the major papers, subverted by the Universal Church?”

“Which resulted in the Church’s first celebrity Bishop,” said Eleanora, “who spouts ideas that are eerily similar to Wreath theology. Yes, this rings a bell.”

“It would appear the Archpope’s influence with the papers is still in effect,” said Vex, laying the newspapers down on the table and fanning them out so their headlines were visible to the Imperial couple.

They stared in silence for a moment.

“Snowe vs. Tellwyrn,” Sharidan read at last. “Don’t think less of me, Eleanora, but I suddenly want to actually see that.”

“Bishop blasts adventurer University,” said the Empress, reaching out to shift the paper on top so she could fully see the headline underneath it. “Who appointed Arachne Tellwyrn? A valid question, but one with an obvious answer. She did.”

“This is remarkably one-sided coverage,” Sharidan mused. “I assume this is a representative sample?”

“It’s not every paper carrying the story,” said Vex, folding his hands behind his back, “but the others have a consistent theme. Critical essays and opinion pieces challenging the University are running all over the Empire this morning; only most of them reference the Bishop’s rather inflammatory remarks at Last Rock this weekend. The unanimity of opinion, here, suggests an organized effort.”

“Now, why on earth would Justinian try to start something up with Tellwyrn?” the Emperor wondered aloud. “I confess, Lord Vex, when you reported Snowe’s speech to me I thought you were being over-cautious.”

“You were correct, your Majesty; I was. That is, after all, my job. The improbability of this campaign is, I think, largely why I didn’t notice it gearing up. That, and it would only take an afternoon to get these things written and sent to the printers. I didn’t truly imagine that Justinian would act so aggressively against Tellwyrn. There seems to be nothing to gain.”

“The question remains,” Elenaora said sharply, “what is he trying to do? That woman couldn’t possibly care less about public opinion; the best he can hope for is to rile her up, which will have consequences for a lot of people besides him.”

“For that reason alone, your Majesty, I suggest acting against him,” said Vex. “But in addition, I believe it suits our interests to support Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Oh?” Eleanora said dangerously.

Vex cleared his throat. “For the last year, since the success of the Sarasio incident, I have been discreetly in contact with the Professor, pointing her toward trouble spots throughout the Empire. She is, as you are aware, fond of using such things as class exercises; I deemed it a wise use of resources to have her students handle issues I was already monitoring.”

“Is that so,” the Empress said very quietly. “Why is this the first I am hearing of this?”

“I did not judge it worth your Majesties’ attention,” Vex said evenly. “I will, if you command, inform your Majesties of everything I do, but the sheer volume of reports would negatively impact both my efficiency and your attention span.”

“You are on thin ice, Quentin,” Eleanora said flatly.

“To be quite honest, then,” he replied, “I knew you wouldn’t like it, your Majesty. I wanted to see if it would work before you shut down the idea.”

“Does it?” Sharidan asked in an interested tone.

“Quite well, in fact,” Vex replied, turning to him. “Their success rate has been better than my agency’s, I must admit, though they do tend to cause a great deal of disruptive ripple effects that my agents avoid; that, I think, makes all the difference. Overall they perform as would be expected from trained adventurer teams. I am speaking, of course, of the adventurers from the days of the Heroes’ Guild, not the freelancers of the last century. And it goes without saying that I suggest only lower-priority incidents to Tellwyrn; I don’t want her or her students near anything truly sensitive. I would regard this project as a great success, and one with important implications for the future.”

“Go on,” Eleanora said evenly.

“The truth, your Majesties, is that Professor Tellwyrn and her University are just not going to go away, and nothing we do can make them. For fifty years she has managed to passively coexist with the Empire, but that cannot endure forever. I would rather she be with us than against us. Using her students to solve small problems advances our goals and hers, trains the Empire’s most dangerous young citizens to act in the Empire’s benefit, and strengthens the Throne’s relationship with Professor Tellwyrn. I am sure I need not remind your Majesties who it was that removed the last Emperor of the Ravidevegh Dynasty from the Silver Throne.”

“And so,” Sharidan mused, “she is tentatively with us, and Justinian is suddenly against her. Well, this does seem very cut and dried, doesn’t it?”

“That in and of itself is suspicious,” Eleanora remarked.

“Yes, your Majesty,” Vex agreed. “I cannot guarantee that part of the Archpope’s motivation is not to act against an established ally of ours. Regardless, he has mostly evaded reprisal from the Imperial government by operating scrupulously within the law, or through sufficient proxies that we could never justify action against him without seeming to be the provocateurs. In this case, he has overreached. Whether he does not expect a response from us, or expects a mild one, I feel it is time to surprise him.”

“What are you proposing?” asked the Emperor.

Vex leaned forward to tap one of the newspapers with a fingertip. “Whatever his goal, this is about public opinion. The Church and the Empire have different ways of swaying it; ours are better. I think it’s time to make Tellwyrn a hero and her Univeristy one of the Empire’s proudest holdings.”

Eleanora rolled her eyes; Sharidan glanced at her, then returned his gaze to Vex.

“Interesting,” the Emperor said. “I’m inclined to agree with your reasoning. The good Professor has never caused problems except in retaliation, and if it is indeed impossible to continue ignoring her, she makes a far better ally than enemy.”

“I’m afraid I can’t disagree,” Eleanora said, not without reluctance.

“There are a couple of additional points,” said Vex, “which I include strictly on the basis of timing, not because I see direct connections between them and this incident. But this propaganda campaign was launched literally overnight, and I take notice of anything related to the Church which happened at the same time.”

“Such as?” Eleanora prompted.

“For one, Bishop Snowe wrapped up her revival tour in Last Rock. She is now en route to Viridill, where Bishop Syrinx has been for the last few months. I do not yet know what either of them are up to; my information suggests that Syrinx is being punished for something by Commander Rouvad, though the Sisterhood is surprisingly adept at keeping me out of their business. Regardless, Snowe and Syrinx are known confidantes of the Archpope. And there is that unfolding issue in Viridill. I was informed yesterday that Syrinx herself was sent to address it by the Abbess.”

For a fleeting moment, he glanced up at Milanda, who stood demurely with her hands folded at her waist. She did not acknowledge the conversation, though Isolde looked at her sidelong.

“Mm,” Sharidan murmured. “Keep us informed.”

“Of course, your Majesty.”

“You said ‘for one,’” Eleanora prompted. “There’s more?”

Vex raised an eyebrow. “Antonio Darling has abruptly left the city.”

The Imperial couple exchanged a loaded glance.

“As I’m sure you recall,” Vex continued, “the last time he did so, it was to collar a handful of Black Wreath agents at the Archpope’s behest, in the company of his fellow Bishops. That was the incident, in fact, which brought them all to our attention. Now… I have seen no indication that he is working for the Archpope in this matter, but Darling’s motivations and loyalties are always a complex matter. He is currently in Veilgrad, in the company of Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and a Huntsman of Shaath named Ingvar, who may or may not be a woman. The issue is…muddy.”

“A female Huntsman?” Sharidan said, raising his eyebrows. “Is that even possible?”

“Is this perhaps a dual spirit?” Eleanora asked. “I believe the Shaathists disagree on that doctrine, but some of their sects support it.”

“Religious dogmas of that kind are outside my realm of expertise,” said Vex. “I have ordered a dossier compiled on this Ingvar character, and will be fully up to speed on the matter by tomorrow. For now, that is all I know. My policy with regard to Darling remains constant: we learn a great deal by watching what he does, and would gain little by interfering with him. If I begin to see signs that he is more strongly connected to the Archpope than I thought, however, I may revise that policy.”

“Agreed,” said the Emperor, nodding. He glanced at Eleanora, who nodded in return. “Very well, you may proceed at your discretion.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.” Vex bowed again, gathered up his papers, and turned to go.

“Lord Vex,” the Emperor said quietly when he was nearly at the doors. Vex turned back to face him; he and Eleanora were both gazing at him with inscrutable expressions.

“Yes, your Majesty?”

“The fact that Justinian got this plan of his to every newspaper before you learned of it,” Sharidan said evenly. “The troubles at the south gate that very nearly derailed negotiations with the Conclave, the disaster in Veilgrad where Intelligence agents were foiled by chaos cultists, the misjudging of the threat in Desolation… I do not expect perfection from our servants; that would be insane. But this sequence of bloody noses and black eyes begins to resemble a pattern.”

“I have observed it too, your Majesty,” Vex replied in perfect calm. “I assure you, it is about to cease.”

“Are you certain?” Sharidan asked. “The will of the people is the only thing that truly supports the Church or the Empire. Justinian is now acting on that directly. The stakes…”

“With respect, your Majesty, Justinian has played this game with us successfully till now because he was very careful to operate only in his own sphere of control.” Vex smiled, thinly, and coldly. “He is now in mine. I mean to make him feel unwelcome.”

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