Tag Archives: Janis van Richter

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Trissiny returned from her morning run looking forward to a shower. Much as she’d found the thing ostentatious on her first arrival at the University, she’d come to enjoy the experience. It was certainly a more efficient way of getting clean than soaking in a tub of water. Upon opening the door to Clarke Tower and stepping inside, however, she had to stop, taking in the scene.

At first glance, everyone appeared to be having breakfast. Pancakes, in fact; there was a large, steaming platter of them set in the center of the coffee table, along with dishes of butter and syrup, and those present were holding laden plates and forks. Shaeine and Teal sat side by side on the sofa, Ruda and Janis in two of the chairs.

Something about the situation made the fine hairs on the back of Trissiny’s neck stand up, however, and she knew very well to respect her intuition about danger. Indeed, on a second look, only Ruda appeared to be enjoying the meal. Teal and Shaeine were glassy-eyed and chewing slowly as if bespelled or drugged. Janis was holding a plate but not eating; her body language was tense, and upon Trissiny’s entry she looked up at her, an incoherent plea in her eyes.

Reflexively, Trissiny reached for her sword.

“What’s going on?” she asked tersely.

“Breakfast,” said Shaeine with a broad smile so totally unlike her normally reserved demeanor that it sent chills down Trissiny’s spine. “Have I mentioned how much I love Imperial food? Sugar on everything.” She swirled a forkful of pancake in syrup and stuck it in her mouth, Teal giggling beside her.

“I’m pretty sure they’re okay,” said Ruda, grabbing Trissiny’s attention. “I’m keeping an eye on this and Janis hasn’t eaten the food.”

“You’re eating the food!”

“Yeah, have you noticed I drink a barrel’s worth of liquor a day and never so much as slur my speech? Mind-altering shit doesn’t work on me.” She glanced at the hallway door. “Like I said, I’m keeping an eye on this; didn’t wanna start up a scrap when we’ve got two incapacitated crewmates, that’s asking for somebody to get hurt. ‘Sides, help’s on the way. Glad you’re here, though, it seems to be you she’s after.”

“What’s… Who did—”

She broke off as Principia Locke bustled into the room from the direction of the kitchen, carrying another platter of pancakes. She looked eerily domestic, wearing a frilled apron and oven mitts. Her whole face lit up when she saw who was present.

“Trissiny! How wonderful, everyone’s finally here. I’m so glad, dear; I’ve been waiting a long time to—”

“What have you done to my friends?” Trissiny demanded.

Prin clucked her tongue, coming forward to set down the pancakes on the coffee table. “I made them breakfast. Honestly, everyone’s so suspicious when I do a nice turn, you’d think…” She trailed off at the rasp of Trissiny’s sword coming out of its sheath.

“I am not going to indulge you in banter,” the paladin said icily. “Something is clearly, badly amiss with them. You will explain this, or you’re going head-first out the nearest window.”

The elf stared at her in silence for a moment, her expression neutral, then sighed softly. “They’re fine. It’s just a little charm to encourage peace and happiness; people pay good money to have it done to them. Wears off in an hour. Honestly, Trissiny, all I wanted was a chance to talk with you, but you’re always surrounded by…” Her eyes cut back and forth around the room, and a scowl fell over her features. “All right, what happened to the dryad?”

“Went to get Tellwyrn,” Ruda said cheerfully. “C’mon, you didn’t expect using a fairy charm on a dryad would do anything but cheese her off? Be glad she didn’t decide to deal with you herself; Juniper’s tastes in breakfast doesn’t run toward pancakes. These are really good, by the way.”

Prin narrowed her eyes. “You are annoyingly lucid for someone who’s supposed to be charmed.”

“Yup. Let’s see, you’re clearly using witchcraft, so it runs on sympathy and symbolism… Something that clouds minds, but it’d almost have to be divine in origin to avoid tripping Triss and Shaeine’s alarms… Ah!” She grinned broadly. “Sacramental wine in the pancake batter, right? I’m right, aren’t I? Yeah, read about the Punaji Curse sometime, see if you can guess where you fucked up.”

The door to the tower flew open. A shrill whine just at the edge of human hearing sounded for a moment, and then with a sharp pop and a flash of light, something burst from above the doorframe and shot across the room, landing smoldering in Prin’s new dish of pancakes. It was a silver horseshoe, slightly charred. Immediately, Shaeine and Teal straightened up, blinking, and the goofy smiles faded from their faces.

Professor Tellwyrn stepped inside, Juniper hovering behind her. Her expression promised murder.

“Well, aside from the obvious,” Ruda added.

“Arachne,” Janis said in obvious relief. “I could have fought her, but the girls…”

“You acted correctly, Janis,” the Professor said, her eyes on Prin. “Kindly make sure they’re suffering no lingering effects.”

Principia stared at Tellwyrn for half a second, then turned back to the paladin. “Trissiny, just—”

“No,” Tellwyrn snarled. She stepped to one side, herding Juniper along with her, then pointed at Principia and gestured at the open door. With a yelp, Prin was yanked forward and hurled bodily outside.

Tellwyrn followed, Trissiny right on her heels, Juniper and Ruda bringing up the rear while Janis attended to a confused Shaeine and Teal. Principia landed on her feet on the bridge, skidding briefly but managing not to lose her balance, thanks to elven agility.

“This is too far,” Tellwyrn said icily. “You were warned about this, Principia. By me, and by the Sisters of Avei. The fact that you chose to challenge me instead of them just goes to prove you’ve not developed any wisdom in the last twenty years.”

“The Sisters didn’t send her into the Golden Sea to face off against a centaur horde,” Prin shot back, glaring. “They aren’t trying to get her killed!”

“They will, though,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “No Hand of Avei has ever died in bed. Well, except Taslin of Madouris; somebody got her with some kind of flesh-dissolving poison. Nasty business. Which doesn’t change the fact that none of this is any of your concern.”

“What is going on?” Trissiny demanded.

“This will always be my concern, Arachne!”

“You gave up the right long ago,” Tellwyrn said inexorably. “Deliberately. Now I have to decide what to do with—”

“She’s still my daughter!” Principia shrieked, then fell silent, fists clenched at her sides.

The only sound was the constant wind that sighed over the bridge.

And then Trissiny laughed. “Oh, come on,” she scoffed, “that’s not even believable. I’m not an elf!”

No one answered her. Principia was staring at her with something like hunger, and Tellwyrn… The Professor’s face was carefully blank, not the expression of someone who’d just heard an easily debunked falsehood. Trissiny felt her smile drain away.

Prin opened her mouth, then glanced warily at Tellwyrn.

“Well, you’ve gone to all this trouble,” Tellwyrn said, folding her arms. “Go on, say your piece. See if she thanks you.”

“The ears are a recessive trait.” Prin began with a careful eye on the Professor, but turned her gaze to Trissiny as she spoke. “Your friend Rafe is the exception, not the rule. Most half-elves are basically just tall, lanky humans with incredible stamina and really good eyesight. Usually blonde. Sound like anyone you know?”

She paused, as if for a response. Trissiny stared blankly at her, unsure whether she was experiencing a total lack of thoughts or simply too many at once for her to pick one out.

“You’ve probably already felt the effects, training with the Sisters,” Principia went on, her tone gentle. “You have ten times the stamina of a pure human and don’t need as much food, but you’ll have had to work thrice as hard as any of the other girls to put on muscle.”

“I…” Trissiny looked desperately at Tellwyrn, who was still watching Principia.

“It’s a tree,” Prin said, barely above a whisper. Trissiny looked back at her and she swallowed painfully before going on, still as softly. “The trissiny. It’s… I don’t know the Tanglish word, they aren’t common on this continent. It literally means ‘silk tree.’ There was one in the grove where I grew up; I used to climb it as a child. It’s one of the very few happy memories I have of home. Slim branches, leaves like fern fronds and little pink puffball flowers in the spring—”

“A mimosa?” Trissiny burst out, horrified. There had been a mimosa tree on the grounds of the Abbey at Viridill. A delicate, decorative thing that with absolutely zero practical use, it was a standing affront to Avenist sensibilities. It had been a gift from some Izarite temple, Mother Narny had said. The cults of Avei and Izara had deep doctrinal conflicts, and the Izarites were forever trying to mend the divide with such ill-considered presents.

Principia jerked back from her as if struck; her expression fell, and Trissiny realized she had let revulsion stand out plainly on her own features. If any of this were true… The fact that she might have been named after that stupid tree was the last straw.

Professor Tellwyrn heaved a sigh. “Well, there you go. Look how happy everyone is. Janis?”

“The girls are fine,” the house mother reported from the doorway behind them. Her eyes were on Trissiny. Everyone’s eyes were on her; she couldn’t make herself meet anyone’s gaze. “It’s a harmless enough spell, but Shaeine is furious.”

“You came onto my campus,” Tellwyrn said grimly, turning back to Principia, “broke into a residential building and laid a hostile enchantment on my students. I have killed people in extravagant ways for considerably less, and none of them had been warned to stay off my property beforehand. All things considered, though, I think it’s more poetic to leave you to stew in the consequences of your selfishness, Prin. The Sisters of Avei will know you flouted their command before the day is out, and you’ll find them a more reasonable enemy than I, but also far more persistent. Enjoy. But you’re done in Last Rock. I want you out of this town within the hour, and if I ever see you on my campus again, I will personally send you to Hell.”

“Yes, yes,” Principia sneered, “the great Professor Tellwyrn hands out death like candy at a parade. We know.”

“I’m not talking about killing you,” Tellwyrn said with a cold smile. “Not directly. On the Acarnian subcontinent there is a hellgate which, though easily accessible from this side, opens thirty feet in the air above a phosphorous swamp on the infernal plane. The nearest exit point back to this dimension is more than fifty miles distant, in the hands of a major demon settlement on the Hellish side and blocked by an Avenist temple on the other. Cross me again and I will take you there, toss you through, and see if you can weasel your way out of that. In four years she’ll be out from under my protection and you can decide whether your selfishness is worth further antagonizing the Sisterhood. Meanwhile, get out of my town.”

“I’m already packed,” Principia said grimly, looking at Trissiny again. The sadness in her eyes made Trissiny furious, for some reason. “I just wanted her to know.”

“Yeah, good job. Everybody’s just so very happy. Feh.” With a wave of Tellwyrn’s hand and a quiet pop of air, the dark-haired elf vanished.

The silence that followed was painfully awkward.

“She…was lying, right?” Trissiny had to pause to swallow the lump in her throat. She could hear a note of pleading in her voice and hated herself for it, but couldn’t hold it back. “Right?”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily, taking off her glasses to rub at her eyes with a thumb and forefinger. Every moment she didn’t casually brush off Principia’s claims was another damning affirmation of them. “I suppose we should talk, Trissiny. Let’s go to my office.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, you are not dragging her across the goddamn campus at a time like this,” Ruda exclaimed. “I’ll help Janis clean up and you can have the room. How many thousands of years does it take you to grow some fucking sensitivity, woman?”

“Thanks, Ruda,” Trissiny said, touched in spite of herself. Ruda grunted and waved her off, turning to head back inside.

“Hey, guys!” Fross zipped over to them from the gate to the main campus, coming to a stop in the middle of the bridge. “Wow, everybody’s up early! You know this is Saturday, right?”


Ruda had been progressively decorating the whole time they’d lived there, and her side of the room was now draped in rugs and heavily embroidered throw pillows, the walls swathed with silken hangings and tapestries. At the foot of her bed were an old-fashioned treasure chest that looked like it belonged in an illustration in a penny dreadful, as well as a modern enchanted cold box in which she kept pints of frozen custard. A white bearskin rug, complete with mounted head and claws, was draped haphazardly over her bed. Trissiny’s side of the room was as stark and spartan as ever.

Tellwyrn stopped in the middle; she didn’t seem to be terribly interested in either side, but frowned at the sharp line of demarcation between them.

Trissiny shut the door behind her, a touch more firmly than was necessary. “It’s…true, then? That woman is my mother?”

The Professor turned to face her, a distasteful grimace twisting her lips. “Trissiny, any imbecile can get knocked up, carry a child to term and squeeze it out. Profound as the experience may seem when you’re going through it, the fact that so many imbeciles do so is the only thing that explains the state of the world. Motherhood is another matter entirely.”

“You’re avoiding the question,” Trissiny accused.

Tellwyrn shook her head. “I am clarifying the question, because you asked the wrong one. Now you listen to me: Abbess Narnasia Darnassy is your mother. She gave years of her life to loving you every minute, taught you everything you know about the world, formed you into a young woman capable of living on your own and then let go to let you do it. That is what a mother is, and you have a damn fine one.”

Trissiny nodded; the lump in her throat was too painful to speak around, but there was something sweet in it as well. Mother Narny had been responsible for all the girls at the Abbey, trainees of every age from all backgrounds, as well as the seven other orphans who’d been raised alongside her, but Trissiny had never once felt that she lacked for care or attention. It was a timely and welcome reminder—and surprising, coming from Tellwyrn—and she resolved on the spot to let the Abbess know how much she was appreciated the next time she had the chance to go home.

“With that said,” Tellwyrn went on, suddenly sounding weary, “the answer to what you meant to ask is yes. You do owe half your blood to Principia Locke. Best have a seat, Trissiny,” she added, suiting the suggestion by stepping over to sit down on Ruda’s bed.

Trissiny pulled out her desk chair and seated herself, keeping silent for the moment as she still didn’t trust her voice not to waver, and also wasn’t sure which of the questions roaring in her head to grasp at first.

“Principia,” Tellwyrn began, “is selfish, clever, unburdened by moral scruples and rather predictable despite her twisty way of thinking. I make a point to keep several such people in my address book; they’re very useful to know. So it was that I happened to be acquainted with her about twenty years ago when she was pulling something particularly crafty with a rural noble House—which I won’t bother to name, as it’s not really material to the subject.

“She’d managed to initiate a fling with the eldest son of the family. I don’t know how and it doesn’t particularly matter. As you probably know, and should if you don’t, such things are taken very seriously by the nobility; the two things they love most are their comforts and their bloodlines, and there is thus always some contention when an aristocrat’s prerogative to screw around with lowborn women creates the risk of producing bastard potential heirs. Matters are more serious still when non-humans are involved; the rich do love exotic playthings, but a half-human member of the family is seen as a disgrace most Houses would go well out of their way to cover up. Of course, all of this happens regularly, everywhere, but it’s still something shameful. The wealthy and powerful, Trissiny, are weird.

“Alchemical contraceptives weren’t common back then, but you can bet that the aristocracy had access to them, and even the most dissolute noble wastrels were heartily encouraged to make use of them. Principia’s paramour most definitely did; he didn’t lack for intelligence or ambition. That ended up being immaterial, however. Prin arranged things so that her status as the young noble’s mistress was well-known throughout the province, behaved herself with uncharacteristic good taste and charity and actually managed to be somewhat well-thought-of. And then she got herself pregnant.”

“You mean… I’m an aristocrat?” Trissiny said numbly.

Tellwyrn grimaced. “You wouldn’t be even if the poor boy had been your father—House Whatever would go to great lengths to hush you up in that case. Anyhow, he wasn’t; he was more careful than that. Prin went and found herself some other human in another district to take care of that little detail. It was a rather inspired little con, which was why I loitered in the area to watch how it played out. She couldn’t prove anything and didn’t need to; it was all about perception and insinuation, about the court of public opinion, not courts of law. She couldn’t have won a paternity suit, but with some skillful manipulation of rumor, she placed the House in the position of having to be nice to her or risk a greater scandal than she’d already created. If their scion’s pregnant mistress were made to up and disappear, there would’ve been an outcry. She effectively forced them to pay her off, make a show of how generous and understanding they were. And then, of course, she wisely removed herself from the region before the fickle public forgot the whole story and the much more vindictive nobility she had effectively blackmailed decided to correct her manners.”

“That is despicable,” Trissiny breathed.

“Yes,” Tellwyrn said, grinning faintly. “but it was quite clever, and it worked. That, I assure you, was all that mattered to Principia. After that, she was only left with the inconvenience of actually being pregnant, and too far along to extinguish it gently. So…when you came along, she was very relieved when I offered to find you a home.”

“You offered?” Trissiny said shrilly. “You?”

“That’s a little more shock than I think the story warrants,” Tellwyrn said wryly. “Yes, me. I didn’t happen to have any reliable friends who’d have wanted a child at the time, and state-run orphanages have a tendency to be unspeakable hellholes. Of the cults who take in orphans… Well, it was just lucky you turned out to be a girl. The Sisters of Avei indoctrinate their youth just like anyone—obviously, I mean look at you—but they generally don’t screw kids up too badly. And Narnasia had just taken over as Abbess at the time; I knew she’d do very well by a foundling. It was part of why she was given the job.”

“But you hate the Sisters!”

The Professor rolled her eyes. “Other way round, Trissiny. I’ve never had an argument with the Sisters; it’s they who hate me. I doubt they even remember why anymore, but Avei chose to take something I did a few centuries back more personally than it was meant, and let me tell you, nobody holds a grudge like an immortal.”

“And of course, you’re famous for rescuing orphaned babies from a life of drudgery,” Trissiny said bitterly.

Tellwyrn gazed at her in silence for a long moment before replying. “I’ve had five children, Trissiny. All by human fathers.  Four errors in judgment and one extremely extenuating circumstance.  Not a bad record for a three-thousand-year career.”

Trissiny blinked in startlement. “I… You… Really? Somehow…I can’t see you raising a child.”

“Omnu’s breath, girl, I didn’t raise them. Can you imagine how messed up someone would be with me as their primary moral example?”

“That’s a great thing to hear from an educator.”

“You kids are at least nominally adults. You are intellectually and morally formed; I’m simply teaching you how to think effectively. Creating a fully functioning person from whole cloth, as it were, is an entirely different matter. Trust me, I know my limitations.” She sighed softly and glanced to the side. “So no, Trissiny, I don’t make it a habit of gallivanting around the world rescuing orphans… But I happened to be there, and I have a soft spot for the half-elven offspring of horribly unfit mothers. Prin didn’t want you, and I found it wasn’t in me to just leave you there. So…here we are.” She shrugged, smiling ironically. “If I hadn’t intervened, you’d have been brought up as a small-time grifter. In the best-case scenario. In the other… I would like to think even Principia wouldn’t have abandoned an inconvenient baby in a haystack somewhere, but if you asked me to look you in the eyes and swear to it, I’d have to balk.”

“Here we are,” Trissiny repeated in a whisper, staring at the floor. Slowly, she lifted her eyes. “She…Principia… She’s a bad person, isn’t she?”

“In all my years, after all the things I’ve done, for all that I’ve kept myself at the forefront of world events about half the time, I’ve met maybe a dozen bad people. Trissiny, most evil in the world is due to stupidity, ignorance and laziness. Some is the work of the mentally ill; much results from the accidents of birth and culture that train people to see the world in irrational ways. Actually evil people, individuals who understand right and wrong and deliberately choose wrong, are vanishingly rare. For the most part, people do what seems best to them, and their moral failings are the extension of intellectual failings.

“Principia Locke is selfish, lazy, deceitful, irreverent and gratuitously obstreperous, but there are much, much worse things a person can be. I can’t tell you she’s a good person to know, but she is not the sort of person you as a paladin are likely to be called on to chase down and bring to justice.”

Trissiny nodded, lowering her eyes again. “I don’t even know what to think about all this. What… What do you think I should do?”

“I think I’m the wrong person to ask,” Tellwyrn said, her voice uncharacteristically gentle. “I’m here to help however I can, but in this case, you have better sources of support. I suggest talking to Avei, and to Narnasia when circumstances permit. I’ll tell you this much: redemption is a real thing and the desire for it is downright commonplace. People do change, and the love for a child is a powerful motivator. You should know, however, that Principia brought you into the world as a prop for a con she was running, and after handing you off to me, the first time she evinced the slightest interest in your existence was when you were chosen by Avei to be her paladin. A week after the announcement, she turned up on the steps of the Abbey, and Narnasia threw her bodily down the stairs.”

“Mother Narny did that?” Trissiny said, shocked. The Abbess had been a Silver Legionnaire in her youth, but now suffered arthritis and walked with a cane.

“She was quite irate, I understand. She also swallowed her pride enough to keep me informed, which was lucky, as the next thing Prin did was move into Last Rock. Avei determined you were to attend school here when you were old enough almost as soon as she called you, though how Prin found out about that I’ve no idea. You may choose to forgive her or not, maybe even to let her be part of your life, but don’t do so blindly: remember her interest in you began when you became a person who’d be useful to know. If she is genuinely repentant, I strongly advise you to make her prove it before you come to any decisions.”

Trissiny nodded slowly. “…I’m a half-elf, then. I think I’m having the most trouble with that.”

“If you’ve gone eighteen years without knowing that, it’s not likely to break your stride now. You’re lucky in that you can pass; most humans and an unfortunate lot of elves tend to shun half-bloods. You’re also the Hand of Avei, so nobody with a lick of sense is going to give you a hard time. Talk with Admestus if you have questions. I can explain the basics, but it’d all be very technical; he’s actually lived them.”

“Ugh.” Trissiny made a face, and Tellwyrn laughed.

“Yes, I know. Remember what I said about people doing what makes sense to them? Rather than turning up your nose at his eccentricities, it would behoove you to wonder what motivates him to act that way.”

“I’m…altogether surprised at how you’re acting,” Trissiny admitted, forcing herself to meet Tellwyrn’s gaze.

“Why, because big bad Tellwyrn has a kind streak?” The elf shook her head. “If I had to guess at Avei’s motivations in sending you here, I’d say she meant you to soften the black-and-white view of the world that growing up in what amounts to a convent has left you with. Nobody’s all one or the other, Trissiny. Honestly, I’m probably the most straightforward person you will ever meet. If I confuse you, you are dramatically oversimplifying the world.”

“Do you know who my father is?”

“No idea,” Tellwyrn admitted. “Some human. He was a bit part in Principia’s game; probably got the night of his life out of the blue and never had an inkling it resulted in consequences for anyone else. They never do. Let me ask a question: what kinds of interactions have you had with Prin since you got to town?”

Trissiny shook her head slowly. “Not much… She tried to give me a necklace once, but Sheriff Sanders chased her off. Well, actually gave it to me, I suppose.”

“What?” Tellwyrn straightened up. “You have something she gave you?”

“She didn’t give it directly to me,” Trissiny explained. “She found Teal and Shaeine in town one night and gave it to them to pass along. I, uh… I was going to have someone look it over for enchantments, but…it slipped my mind.”

“Slipped your mind. Well, now we know how she’s been following your movements, at least. I was all set up to go hunting down whoever blabbed about centaurs.” She rubbed her forehead. “Damn it, Trissiny, I can accept your priggishness as a result of upbringing, but you of all people should know to be more careful than this.”

“You’re right,” Trissiny said, flushing. She opened her belt pouch and rummaged inside for the necklace; it took some doing, as the thing had slid under her first aid kit. “I’ve been kind of overwhelmed by this place, but that’s a poor excuse. Here it is.”

“And you’ve even been carrying it—” Tellwyrn broke off abruptly, staring at the necklace dangling from Trissiny’s fingers. “That’s a golden eagle.”

“Uh…yes. I guess she thought it’s the only kind of ornamentation I might want. Which is true; I didn’t even want this, but the sigil…”

“The sigil!” She snatched the necklace out of Trissiny’s hand, staring at it. “Yes, there’s a tracking charm… Oh, hell, Principia, what have you done?”

“What?” Trissiny stared at her, nonplussed. “I’m confused, what does that—”

“No time!” Tellwyrn said curtly, and then the room vanished.

Trissiny had never teleported before; the lack of sensation was disorienting. It seemed it should feel like something, but her room simply disappeared and the sheriff’s office in Last Rock replaced it. She also materialized in a seated position and staggered to one knee, only her years of physical training warding off an embarrassing tumble to the floor. Tellwyrn, she noted with annoyance, had re-sorted herself in transit so that she appeared upright.

“Damn it!” Sheriff Sanders shouted, jerking backward from his desk so abruptly he caused a minor avalanche of papers. “Don’t do that!”

“Where is Principia Locke?” Tellwyrn demanded. “Have you seen her today?”

“A few minutes ago,” he grunted, re-settling himself in his chair. “She popped out of midair and landed right there in the street. I kinda figured it was your doing.”

“Which way did she go?”

“Hell if I know,” he said. “I ain’t her keeper, unless I can manage to actually catch her committing a crime for once. Home, I reckon.”

Tellwyrn hissed a curse, and the world vanished again.

“Son of a bitch!” Sanders barked when they materialized; this time he was dumped to the floor, suddenly without the chair under him. He winced, looking up at Trissiny. “Ah… My apologies, ma’am.”

Trissiny nodded abstractly to him, looking around. They were in a bare attic space containing nothing but a bed with an uncovered mattress and battered old table and chair. “Where are we?”

“Prin’s place,” Sanders grunted, climbing to his feet. “Though it looks like she’s skipped town. Well, for all that I couldn’t help liking her a little, I’ve gotta say this’ll make my job a mite easier.”

“Trissiny,” Tellwyrn said sharply, “do you sense anything? Anything demonic or otherwise evil?”

Trissiny frowned, panning her gaze around the bare little room. “Nothing like that. Why? Are you expecting demons?”

“I would take it as a great kindness if someone would explain to me what’s going on,” Sanders said with visibly strained patience.

Tellwyrn held up the necklace, regarding it grimly. “This piece of jewelry has a tracking charm on it. She’s been using it to keep tabs on Trissiny’s movements.”

“Well, that’s a misdemeanor, if Ms. Avelea didn’t consent to the surveillance,” he said slowly. “I’m not sure I understand the urgency of all this, though.”

“Sam, this is the sacred symbol of Avei! The gods aren’t always paying attention to us—okay, hell, they aren’t often paying attention. But to lay a charm on a holy sigil intended to surreptitiously track her Hand? Avei would damn well notice that.”

“What are you saying?” Trissiny demanded.

“There are ways of hiding such things from the gods,” Tellwyrn said grimly. “They’re commonly used on idols, to prevent the deities in question from realizing that those worshiping them are…less than sincere. This is Black Wreath spellwork.”

Silence held for a moment.

“Aw, Prin,” Sanders groaned, dragging a hand over his face.

“It’s probably not what you’re thinking,” Tellwyrn said. “Principia wouldn’t join the Wreath.”

“This looks pretty damning!” Trissiny retorted. A hollow sensation was opening up inside her; this was just too many revelations for this early in the morning.

“Pun not intended?” Tellwyrn actually smiled a little when Trissiny glared at her. “Two kinds of people join the Black Wreath: true believing fanatics eager to pull down the gods, and everyone else, most of whom just like feeling subversive and get squeamish when they realize what they’ve gotten into—if they ever do. Principia is too self-centered and too cynical to be in either group. However, I can well imagine her being brazen enough to con the Wreath out of some spellwork. Which leaves the very significant question of what she offered them in return and whether she came through on her end of the deal. I can see that going either way.”

“That’s assuming she’s not actually a Wreath cultist,” Trissiny added grimly. “A personality profile isn’t evidence, Professor.”

“Yes…in any case, she’s certainly intelligent enough to foresee how this would play out when she broke into Clarke Tower,” Tellwyrn said, beginning to pace. “Packed up and ready…an escape prepared. We won’t catch her.”

“She broke into…” Sanders trailed off, shaking his head. “What do you mean, we won’t catch her? Are you Arachne Tellwyrn or not?”

“Legendary power does not connote omnipotence or infallibility,” Tellwyrn said, still frowning into the distance. “Last person I met who thought it did was a god. I will forever cherish the look on his face when I killed him.”

Trissiny and Sanders exchanged a wary look.

“City girl or not, she’s still an elf. All she has to do is get lost in the tallgrass and that is pretty much that. With even the basic enchantments she can use, she can deflect a tracking hound.” She shook her head, coming to a stop and staring out the room’s one window. “This goes way beyond Principia. Damn it… We need to find her. We aren’t going to be the only ones trying, and depending on who gets there first, she may be silenced before anybody can get answers.”

“By ‘silenced,’” Trissiny said slowly, “you mean…”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

She realized she was gripping the hilt of her sword. Whether for comfort or in anticipation of trouble, Trissiny couldn’t have said, and it bothered her that she could make so little sense of her own thoughts. Whatever else was going on, they needed—she needed to find Principia Locke. They needed answers.

So did she.

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“Off to dinner, girls?” Janis said cheerily as she puttered about Clarke Tower’s sitting room, applying a feather duster to the furniture. “Remember, just let me know if you ever want to eat in. Not that the cafeteria food isn’t just wonderful, but we’ve a fully-stocked kitchen here, and sometimes a lady doesn’t feel up to facing the crowds. You know how it is.”

Shaeine and Juniper had just entered the room from the stairs; Teal sat on the couch, strumming a soft melody on her guitar. She looked up and grinned without pausing.

“Pertaining to that,” said Shaeine, “I have a favor to ask. Has anyone seen Trissiny or Zaruda?”

“Not since we got back,” replied Teal, still playing. “If they’re both up in their room…well, we maybe should go break up whatever’s going on, but I’m not so sure it’d be safe to.”

“Tut, tut, those girls just need a bit of time to get used to each other,” Janis scolded gently. “Mind your head, duckie, let me just get the back of the couch.”

“I see.” Shaeine folded her hands together, causing them to vanish in the wide cuffs of her sleeves. “I need to visit the scrolltower office in Last Rock and dispatch a message to Tar’naris. I would greatly appreciate a human escort, if such is available. The more open-minded of Imperial citizens, I find, react to my race with mere suspicion. I will be glad to pay for a dinner in town, as thanks.”

“Oh!” Juniper bit her lower lip. “Oh, that actually sounds like a lot of fun, but I’ve already made plans this evening. I promised Mrs. Oak I’d be back at the dining hall for dinner, and then I have a date.”

“Already?” Janis tittered. “But I shouldn’t be surprised, you’re such a lovely little thing. Just be careful, dear, a lady must mind her reputation.”

“I’ll come along,” said Teal, her melody easing to a stop. “Mind if I bring my guitar? I’ve been wanting to have a go at playing the local taverns anyway; my parents never let me do it back home.”

“I should be very grateful of the company,” Shaeine replied, bowing to her. “And I never object to music.”

“That’s what I like to hear!” Grinning, Teal gently laid the guitar in the case at her feet and snapped it shut, then slung it over her shoulder as she stood. “I’m good to go whenever you are.”

“I would not dream of making you wait. Shall we?”

Juniper watched, her head tilted inquisitively, till the girls had shut the door behind them, then turned back to Janis. “What about my reputation?”


 

“Hold up. Can we stop a minute?”

“Of course.”

Teal sank to the ground, sitting on the lower step of the great marble staircase with the main street of Last Rock opening before her, and placed the guitar case across her knees. She leaned on it with both elbows, panting. Shaeine stood silently nearby, only the faint shine of her eyes visible from within her hood.

“In Tiraas I once got to visit Thomas Esdel’s factory. He’s got this thing, called an escalating staircase. Basically the steps just sort of flow upward like a backwards river; no walking required. I think it’s powered by an elemental turning a wheel.” She lifted her head and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve. “I’m gonna suggest Tellwyrn put one of those in here.”

“It was my supposition that Professor Tellwyrn arranged this approach to her University specifically to discourage easy access,” Shaeine replied. “Such would befit someone of her reputation.”

“Ugh…I swear I’m not out of shape. There just aren’t any mountains to climb where I’m from.”

“In my home, level surfaces are scarce and not found on a single, convenient plane. We build where building is possible. Stairs are a fact of life to which I am, I think, more accustomed than most of our classmates.”

“I bet Clarke Tower is downright homey to you, then.”

“Its interior, yes, in some ways. I am only able to sleep by cultivating deep denial of what lies outside its walls.”

Teal chuckled, then heaved herself back to her feet with a grunt. “Well, that’s not just you. I mean, who builds a floating tower? Honestly.”

“Wizards?”

“Wizards who are jerks.”

“Or merely ostentatious.”

“Ostentatious jerks!”

They attracted some long looks from the townsfolk as they passed into the town proper, but no overt hostility. The citizens of Last Rock were doubtless used to unusual types, living in the literal shadow of the University; several offered polite greetings in passing, which Teal returned cheerily and Shaeine with a formal bow.

“Teal, I wish to ask what may be a personal question, but I desire not to offend. I do not yet understand the limits of acceptable conversation in Imperial society.”

“Ask away,” she replied lightly. “I reserve the right not to answer, but I won’t be offended by curiosity.”

Shaeine’s nod was a barely perceptible shuffle of her cowl. “In the dining hall, I heard two upperclassmen express fascination that a Falconer is in attendance this year. Are you of the nobility?”

“I…ehhh. Not as such.” She made a wry face. “That is, a pedigreed aristocrat would be offended at the suggestion, but…partly because my family are richer than most of them.”

“I see. Please forgive my impertinence.”

“Shaeine, it’s fine. If you tread on my privacy I’ll tell you, but questions aren’t a bother. That’s how people get to know each other, after all.”

“I will keep it in mind.”

They walked in silence, occasionally nodding to locals. Last Rock was surprisingly busy, considering the hour; the sky was streaked with crimson shadows, the sun having long since vanished behind the mountain.

“Not very convenient of ’em to build the scrolltower office at the outer edge of town.”

“Inconvenient for University residents, perhaps, but not for the sake of commerce. It is, after all, adjacent to the Rail platform.”

“I can hardly imagine anyone coming here just to send a telescroll,” Teal grumbled. “Students and faculty probably give them more business than anybody stumbling off a caravan.”

“Perhaps they take satisfaction in making us walk.”

“I just bet they do. First Tellwyrn with her bloody staircase and then all these…fine people.” She glanced around warily; nobody appeared to be close enough to listen in. “You know, we should visit town more often. It’s rare I can walk among the proletariat and not be the center of suspicious attention.”

“Honored to be of service,” Shaeine said dryly. “Though, with respect, I would assume that your manner of dress did not signal an aversion to attention.”

Teal kicked a pebble out of her way. “It’s…maybe not so prudent. I suppose I’ll have to up and grow out of it one of these days. I just…gah. It got to where I felt like I’d explode if I couldn’t just be me and not what’s expected of me. You know?”

“I confess that I don’t. In Tar’naris, expectations are a fact of life, and the consequences for flouting them are not merely social.”

“…you must think I’m pretty shallow.”

“Not in the least. I think your concerns reflect the world in which you live, and are shaped by pressures wholly alien to me.” She turned her cowled head to look at Teal directly. “I am accustomed to the demands of a society with rigid gender roles; sometimes I think that integrating into a culture that lacked them would be easier than adapting to one whose roles are so utterly different.”

“How so?”

“There is no word for ‘patriarchy’ in my language. Explaining the concept would incite either derision or violence, depending on circumstance. I am…given to understand that Imperial society is not accepting of persons attracted to their own gender.”

“Not especially, no.” Teal sighed heavily.

“If the subject bothers you, of course I will not press.”

“No, no…really, if anything it’s nice to talk with someone who’s not just…tolerating me. I guess elves are okay with…with that?”

Shaeine cocked her head to one side. “Orientation is a human concept. Among elves, both surface and subterranean, refusing sexual contact with an entire gender is considered a sign of mental illness.”

“…wow. I guess I might not fit in so well in Tar’naris after all.”

“On the contrary. You might not be welcomed among a plains or forest tribe, but my people have a more lenient view of the mind. Any condition which does not inhibit an individual’s ability to contribute is considered a personality trait, not a problem. Drow do not waste resources.”

“So…really? By that standard, elves would consider almost all humans crazy.”

“Oh, we do.”

Teal’s laughter was loud and bright; Shaeine smiled at her in return.

The scrolltower was impossible not to find; it was the tallest thing short of the mountain in the region, and in any case the road led almost directly to it. Last Rock’s tower was an unpretentious pillar of metal scaffolding topped by the great crystal orb, which flickered dimly in the twilight as information passed through it. There was apparently little for Last Rock to transmit, and at present it served simply as a waypoint for messages flying across the Empire.

Teal pulled the door open and held it for Shaeine, bowing grandly; she received a nod and a smile in return.

Inside, the office more resembled stereotypical frontier sensibilities than did most of Last Rock. The interior walls were paneled with wood and decorated with maps and a few hunting trophies. Mounted heads of bear, elk, unicorn and some kind of enormous cat glared down at them, and a single preserved dragon wing was stretched across one entire wall. Benches were upholstered in patched red leather in a style that had been popular in Imperial offices twenty years ago, and the wall sconces pulsed and flickered, clearly the original prototype fairy lights rather than the steadier modern variety.

“Well, hey there! Y’all are just in time, I was about to close up. C’mon in, let’s see what we can do for you.” Behind the counter opposite the door grinned an old man with bristly white sideburns, and the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial officer pinned to his flannel shirt. Over his shoulder they could just see the pale blue glow of arcane magic at work.

“Good evening,” Shaeine replied, gliding toward him with Teal strolling along behind. “I apologize for the late hour. I must dispatch a message to the Narisian consulate at Fort Vaspian.” She produced a neatly folded sheaf of parchment from within her robe and placed it on the counter.

“Vaspian, that’s right over by the path to the Underworld…message to Tar’naris, then? Well, of course, just listen to me babble.” He laughed as he opened the paper. “’Course to Tar’naris, not likely you’d be writin’ to Svenheim. Sure thing, little lady, comin’ right up! Oh, this is a diplomatic code. That’s a priority, then. Not that there’s any waitin’. Lessee…”

He turned his back and stepped two feet to the machinery that formed the base of the scrolltower; Teal and Shaeine both stepped up against the counter, craning their necks to watch. Off to one side was an enormous scroll of paper, with a pen hovering over it attached to a metal arm. Atop this assembly sat the tiny globe of a fairy light, no doubt an indicator, currently dark. The operator went to a station next to it, where his body blocked their view, but shifting patterns of blue light limned him as he fed Shaeine’s message into the device.

“Folks came up from Tiraas ’bout four years ago to put this here girl in,” he said amiably as he worked. “Used to be, us scrollmasters were a trained an’ disciplined corps! Had to know our geography and the numeric code the towers use to transmit. Nowadays, it’s a scrying apparatus does it, reads the message an’ parses it out into code an’ all. She’s even smart enough to interpret your transmission code. Ain’t that a hell of a thing? They got enchantments smarter’n people now. Soon enough a monkey’ll be able to do this job.”

He turned back to face them with a smile; behind, the tray in which he’d placed the letter continued to gleam, casting a shifting pattern of light on the walls like the reflection of moonlight on water. “Now, it’ll take ‘er just a minute or two to percolate. I still got the old-style interface for when things get busy; these ol’ fingers are still nimble enough to get the job done faster’n any machine! Oh, ‘scuze my manners, I get used to knowin’ everybody in this town. Silas Crete, Imperial scrollmaster, fer whatever that’s still worth.”

They introduced themselves, Shaeine with a formal bow, to the grinning scrollmaster. “Pleasure to meet new faces. Y’all just started up at the school? Pretty sure I ain’t seen ya in town before.”

“We did,” Shaeine replied.

“Well, missy, it’s good to see you. Some folks are all het up about how fast things’re changin’, but I don’t hold with that kinda backward thinkin’. Ol’ Silas remembers when we used to have troops at the entrance to Tar’naris all the time. Big ol’ waste, y’ask me. Damn good thing to see people getting’ along. That’s progress I kin get behind!” He turned to glance at the reader, which was still working. “Hmf, damn thing takes forever, but they want me to use ‘er unless it’s too busy. Pencil jockeys in Tiraas, no idea how things work in a real office… Say, missy, if it ain’t an imposition, I wonder if you could settle an argument.”

Shaeine tilted her head curiously. “I will be glad to help if I can.”

“Me an’ my nephew—he was in the army, used to be stationed at Vaspian, ‘course this was after the treaty—me an’ my nephew Jonas have a disagreement ’bout drow customs. He keeps tryin’ to feed me this line about how drow women kill their men after they, y’know…get with the business of makin’ the next generation. That ain’t so, is it?”

For the first time since Teal had met her, Shaeine seemed taken aback. “That…would be a recipe for population collapse. No, that is not our custom. A matriarchial culture does not presuppose institutional hostility toward males.”

Haw! Exactly what I told ‘im, miss, exactly what I told ‘im. That’s just beautiful, finally I get to shut the little punk up. You just made my week!”

“Happy to be of service,” Shaeine said carefully. Teal bit down on both her lips, concentrating on restraining her laughter.

“Oop, there she goes! Message sent, no problems, and you’re all set.” He retrieved the letter, refolded it and handed it back to Shaeine. “Anything else, little lady?”

“That is all I require at present, thank you. What do I owe you?”

He waved her off. “Don’t you worry about that, darlin’, it’s on ol’ Silas this time. Jes’ my way of sayin’, welcome to the Empire! I surely do hope you enjoy your stay.”

“You are extremely kind, sir,” she said, bowing again.

“Say,” Teal chimed in, “can you recommend a place in town where we can get some dinner?”

“Well, the Ale an’ Wenches does a lotta good business, it’s pretty popular with the students. You can see it right outside the door, other side of the Rail platform.”

“Mm, right, I heard about that one up at campus,” she said, nodding slowly. “How about…anyplace a little quieter, maybe?”

Silas grinned broadly at her. “Not much for carousin’? Well, that’s a good thing to hear, ma’am. Not sayin’ all the University kids are loud an’ destructive, a’course. It really don’t need to be said.” His laugh was a tenor bark like a seal’s. “Well, remember my nephew Jonas? He’s a little numbnut sometimes, but a good kid. Runs the town saloon, keeps it quieter than the A&W an’ they got pretty good food.”

“Sounds perfect!”

“You can get there easy enough, ain’t nothin’ hard to find in this town. Up the main street toward the mountain, hang a left just past the barber shop, head down a few doors an’ it’ll be on your right. Can’t miss it, the sign says Saloon and hangs over the dang street, too low for a horse to walk under.”

“Thank you again,” Shaeine said with another bow.

The sun had set while they were in the scrolltower office. Back on the street, Shaeine left her hood down, and though most of the townsolk had cleared out indoors, those who remained frequently stopped and stared, now. With the Narisian treaty barely ten years old, drow weren’t a common sight anywhere in the Empire, and their reputation as enemies of anyone who dwelt in the sunlight was millennia old. Shaeine greeted anyone who gave her a look with a bow and one of her polite half-smiles, and nobody challenged them, but even so, Teal stayed close. Last Rock might be an open-minded place for a frontier town, but one never knew.

“I confess to a measure of excitement at this prospect,” said Shaeine, sounding no more excited than usual. “The ‘saloon’ is a fixture of our popular fiction about the Imperial frontier. I had hoped to visit one at least once during my stay on the surface.”

“Really, you guys have popular fiction about the Empire?”

“Have you never encountered popular fiction about drow?”

Teal winced. “I, uh…actually own a couple of novels. I figured they weren’t very accurate…”

“Those I have seen tended to be quite erotic.”

By this point, Teal’s face was burning. “I’ve…heard that.”

“Well, that is both an amusing irony and a basic fairness. Humans are often sexualized in my culture as well.”

“They…we…really?”

“Our standards of beauty emphasize that which differentiates us from our paler surface cousins,” Shaeine went on serenely, “including muscularity and curvaceousness. Humans are more prone to both than even we. There are other cultural factors at play, especially the universal allure of the exotic. It’s a fascinating topic; I will perhaps write a paper on it during my tenure at the University.”

“I think I’d like to read that,” Teal sad wonderingly.

Everything was exactly where old Silas had said it would be. The Ale & Wenches cast a glow of golden light and a babble of happy voices across the square fronting the Rail platform, but they went nowhere near it. Finding the saloon was simple enough, following his directions. Just approaching it they could tell it suited Teal’s request for a quieter venue, though the cheerful sound of a slightly off-tune piano trickled out from the swinging wooden doors. This time, Shaeine went in first, pushing the doors wide, and stepped to one side once within to admit Teal.

It was a clean and well-lit space, its furnishings slightly shabby but clearly cared for. The décor reflected the same sensibilities as the scrolltower office had, with mounted animal heads on the wall and a full-sized stuffed bear rearing in one corner opposite the piano. The patrons filled the room with a cheerful but muted babble, which faded upon Shaeine’s entrance as they turned to stare at her.

The two students found a table near the wall, by the bear, and slid into seats; already the murmur of conversation began to pick back up. A slender figure dodged nimbly around tables and patrons, sliding to a stop beside them.

“Hi there, ladies. What’ll it be?”

Teal had to force herself not to stare; the waitress was an elf. Aside from the fact that elves seldom chose to live in human towns, they were nearly always too prideful to take on any kind of servant work. This woman, furthermore, had black hair, which was a striking rarity.

“Ah…” She glanced at Shaeine, who tilted her head slightly, indicating that Teal should proceed. “Just here for dinner. What’s good?”

“Good,” mused the elf, as though this were a foreign concept to her. “Now, do you mean good by the standards of the fancy-feasting Imperial rich kids up at the University? Because I’m afraid we don’t serve that here. Or what’s good for someone treating themselves to a night out on a cobbler’s wages? There’s a whole spectrum of good to explore.”

Teal found herself relaxing; the woman had a somewhat cheeky attitude, but she, herself, was right in her element when it came to banter. “Let me put this another way. What would you order?”

“Ahh, this one’s got a mind. Well done.” The elf smiled broadly at her, with a semblance of actual warmth. “That sounds to me like a steak dinner with the works. However, you being strangers, there’s an obligatory gold check before anything that pricey comes to the table.”

Shaeine reached into the folds of her robe, but Teal was faster, placing a small stack of Imperial doubloons on the table. “This being cattle country, I can’t imagine steak is too outlandish.”

“Not nearly as outlandish as that,” she replied, nodding to the coins. “Put those away, the losers around here can smell money. And to drink? I can’t say I’d recommend the wine, but the beer is better than decent.”

Teal glanced at Shaeine questioningly.

“Tea, please,” said the drow.

“Coming up.” The elf deftly pocketed a couple of coins before Teal retrieved the remainder of the stack. “I’m Principia; sing out if you need anything. Just don’t call me Sippy unless you want a surprise in the bottom of your glass.” With that and a wink, she darted toward the door at the back of the common room.

“That,” Shaeine mused, “was an altogether unfamiliar experience. Doubtless local standards differ, but I am very unaccustomed to hearing insults and threats from servants.”

“She was a little mouthy,” said Teal, “but yeah, things are a little more relaxed around here. I suspect there was an element of elvish pride there; I’m honestly astonished to find one waiting tables. Though on the other hand, a waitress isn’t exactly a servant as such.”

“Hm. Her duty is to serve, is it not?”

“Maybe I’m imposing my own perspective,” Teal admitted. “My family has servants; they’re actually professionals with training and take a lot of pride in being attached long-term to one employer. Our Butler would be pretty offended if I compared him to a saloon waitress.”

“I see. I am not alone in being out of my element, then.”

“You’re a little farther out, maybe.” Teal returned her companion’s smile. “But we can all stand to learn.”

“That is always true.”

Principia returned, carrying a tray with a full tea service; the china was coarse and unadorned, but not chipped. “Here we are,” she said lightly, sliding it onto their table. “The good part will be along presently. Say, are you two new this year?”

“Yup,” said Teal. “Second day.”

“Thought so. There’s only one other drow up there, to my knowledge, and she lacks…social graces. Nice to meet you both.” She grinned and slid away again, this time to check on another table.

“Would you excuse me for a minute?”

Shaeine nodded. “Of course.”

“Thanks. Be right back.” Teal slid from her seat and crossed over to the pianist, who was just finishing up a piece. He played with the exuberant imprecision of long practice and no particular talent; there was no applause when he finished, but saloon music wasn’t really intended to hold an audience’s attention. As the man turned sideways on his stool to grab a tankard of beer that had been resting (on a coaster) atop the piano, she noted a striking resemblance to Silas Crete, right down to the sideburns; this might be the same man twenty years younger, his bushy brown hair just beginning to go gray. This must be the nephew, Jonas.

“Evening,” she said pleasantly. “That’s nice work. You have live music in here all the time?”

“Well, not all the time, miss,” he replied with an easy smile. “These fingers can’t go every minute a’ the day, and I’ve got the bar to run, too. But I like to play now’n again, when I can.”

“A personal touch, I like it,” she said, matching his laid-back good humor. “I have a guitar with me tonight. Would you mind if I played a song or two after dinner?”

“Sure, long as you keep it clean an’ don’t expect me to pay for the entertainment.”

“Nah, it’s just for the fun of it.”

“Then consider yourself on the program, miss…?”

“Falconer. Teal Falconer. Thanks, I’ll wander over after we eat. I’ve heard good things about the steak here.”

He just smiled and nodded at her again, took a long pull of his drink and turned back to the keys.

She barely made it back to rejoin Shaeine before Principia reappeared, this time balancing another tray laden with steaming plates. Teal goggled at her as she slipped back into her chair.

“Wow. Doesn’t steak take time to cook?”

“Everything takes time, my young learner,” the elf intoned, sliding plates in front of each of them, then grinned. “Things take less time when the owner of the establishment is obsessed with having all the latest magical doodads from Calderaas in his kitchen.”

“It was my impression,” said Shaeine, “that cooking times cannot be artificially accelerated without adversely affecting the product.”

Principia glanced to the left, then the right, lifting her head and checking that Jonas was absorbed with the piano. Then she leaned in close to them, one side of her mouth curling up in a mischievous smirk. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Sure,” said Teal warily.

Principia’s smile widened to a grin. “Me too.” She straightened up and dusted off her hands. “Enjoy your dinner, girls.”

“I begin to see,” said Shaeine, watching the waitress leave, “why surface elves customarily avoid serving work. They seem ill-suited to it.” She examined her silverware, then peered at Teal’s, which she had already picked up.

“Oh, um… Not what you’re used to?”

“I am accustomed to a single knife as an eating impliment.”

“Wow, that sounds…messy.”

“Potentially. I am struck by the irony that your society and not mine invented those portable items we had for lunch. On the other hand, we seldom have bread.”

“Sandwiches? Yeah, those are handy. Here, just hold it like this. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, it’s just me here and nobody else is watching.”

“But there is clearly a customary way to do it. There are no meaningless rituals, no matter how small; from such things is culture built.”

Dinner was pleasant. Teal scooted her chair closer to Shaeine’s to show the drow how to handle the silverware, and managed not to laugh at the intensity with which she approached this task. It was like watching a child learning a new subject for the first time. Their conversation was more casual, when they spoke, and chiefly about growing up in Tar’naris and Tiraan province, respectively. They really were from totally different worlds, so much so that it hardly seemed to either that sentient people could truly live as the other described. Long pauses were devoted simply to chewing, however. Shaeine had never had a steak before. She strongly approved.

“How’re we doing?” Principia asked, coming by their table as they were finishing up. Both girls were chewing at that moment, but Teal gave her a thumbs up, getting a grin in reply. “Tolja the steak was good here. Hey, I wonder if you could do me a favor?”

Teal swallowed. “Uh, maybe. What would that be?”

The elf dipped a hand into her apron pocket and pulled it out, closed; a gold chain dangled from her fist at both ends. “You’re freshman girls, so you’ll be living with that new paladin, right? Trinity?”

“Trissiny,” Teal corrected automatically. “Yeah, she’s in our building.”

“Trissiny, right. Totally knew that, I was just testing you.” She winked and unfolded her fingers; in her hand rested a gold necklace, Avei’s eagle symbol on a braided chain. “I do a little side business in trinkets and charms, and…well, I guess you could say I’m a big fan. Could you give this to her, please?”

“What kind of charms?” asked Shaeine.

“Oh, all kinds,” Principia replied glibly. “Minor enchantments, I’m not wizard. You can’t put much on a holy symbol, of course, beyond a simple brightening charm. Not that I would, anyway.”

“You’re an Avenist?” Teal said in surprise.

The elf frowned at her. “What, you aren’t? Avei is the protector of all womankind. No exceptions for pointy ears.”

“I know, I just…I’d never heard of elves being…” Teal swallowed and reached for the necklace. “Yeah, sure, I can give this to Trissiny. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the gesture.”

“Prin,” called Jonas from across the room, “I’m not payin’ you to stand around jawin’ with the customers!”

“Whoops, the master calls,” the waitress said with a roll of her eyes, then flashed Teal a brilliant smile. “Thanks, doll. You’re a peach!” She whisked away to another table whose occupants were calling for beer.

“I mistrust that girl,” Shaeine said softly.

“Hm.” Teal looked down at the necklace in her hand for a moment before tucking it into her pocket. “She’s probably harmless; someone like Triss is bound to have admirers. Though I’m going to ask her how she feels about getting gifts for future reference. No point in making her uncomfortable.”

“Indeed.”

Teal caught Jonas’s eye; he grinned at her and nodded. Nodding back, she picked up her guitar case and rose. “Well, wish me luck!”

“You don’t need it,” replied her companion, “but good luck.”

The proprietor cleared the way for Teal to seat herself on the piano stool; he patted her shoulder once, smiling, then strode off toward the kitchen. Apparently the younger Mr. Crete was a man of fewer words than his uncle. She pulled out her guitar, gently plucking at the strings and adjusting the pegs. It had been in tune earlier, but been carried down a mountain since then.

“Hey, Ox, check this out,” called a reedy man at the table nearest her. “A college student with a guitar! Will wonders never cease.” He leaned one arm over the back of his chair, grinning at Teal. “How ’bout we make a bet, darlin’. If we ain’t already heard all three o’ the chords you know, your drinks’re on me tonight.”

“No bet,” she replied. Her fingers lightly fell on the strings, and the guitar sang. A soft waterfall of notes poured forth, growing in volume and speed and climbing back up the scale, swirling about each other in a playful dance that distracted from their utter precision. Teal brought the sequence to a close with a relatively simple arpeggio, then winked at the man, who was now gaping at her. “I’d hate to take your money.” Then she began to truly play, and sang.

It was a love song, but barely. She sang of a life that was peaceful and in order, suddenly upended by the arrival of a beautiful, beloved enemy; of the confusion of passion and frustration, of coming together and breaking apart until nobody knew where they stood. The song wove a bittersweet story of beauty and pain, the guitar added its coppery voice, and all throughout the saloon silence fell as every patron stopped drinking and stared fixedly at the bard, many with mouths open. Principia leaned against the far wall, watching with a wistful smile; Jonas and the portly cook both leaned out from the kitchen. Shaeine straightened till she was barely still seated, her gaze fixed on Teal with an intensity she had never shown in class.

No one could have said how long it went on; time stopped having any meaning. Three more people arrived while Teal sang, but they didn’t make it any farther inside than the door, immediately transfixed by the music. As long as the song lived, they were her prisoners. Teal never noticed, never looked up to see; her eyes were closed, her entire being wrapped around the guitar, coaxing the river of music from its strings.

And then it ended. The song came to a predictable close as good songs do, the notes of the accompaniment winding to a conclusion for a few seconds after the words stopped and ending on a tonic chord, but still the audience leaned back as one at the severance of the invisible chains binding them in place. A tiny exhalation echoed around the room, as dozens of people in unison let out the smallest breath, each too soft to have been heard in isolation.

For a moment, silence reigned. Then someone cleared his throat roughly and began, “That was—”

“HEATHENS!”

The swinging doors burst open to admit a stooped figure in a severe black gown, leaning on two canes, her wizened old face contorted with rage.

“Evenin’, Miz Cratchley,” somebody said in a resigned tone.

“You should every last one of you be ashamed!” the old woman screeched. “Carousing and drinking and listening to devil music! This used to be a good town, a town that feared the gods, and then SHE came. Now there’s poison in the streets, and honest human folks who can’t say they don’t know better have heads full of evil elvish ideas and would rather spend their nights in a saloon than a chapel!”

“Oh, brother,” said Principia, just loud enough to be clearly audible. Teal, taking advantage of the distraction, quickly bent to put away her guitar.

“And YOU!” Miz Cratchley shrieked, pointing a cane at Prin, who stuck out her tongue in reply. “Shameless slattern! Walking filth, corrupting the young of this town! You, and all the deviants and lunatics up there on the hill, pouring down their poison like sewage! What is that?!” Her voice rose to a thin scream of rage as she caught sight of Shaeine.

“Now, Mabel,” said Jonas, striding toward her with his arms open. “You seem tired. Maybe it’s time to head home and—”

“Don’t you dare to touch me, Jonas Crete, not when you’ve opened your doors to the demons of hell itself!” Several of the locals stood up in alarm; Mabel Cratchley had actually begun to foam at the mouth, her eyes rolling wildly as she ranted. “Monsters and wizards and the forces of evil walk among us! You’ll see what happens to a town that turns its back on the gods! YOU’LL SEE!” She flailed ferociously with both canes, swaying in place. “A great doom is coming, and woe to those who fail to repent! A GREAT DOOM!”

Then Shaeine was there, having slipped nimbly through the crowd. At her sudden approach, Miz Cratchley drew in a deep breath to unleash a bellow, her face twisting in incoherent rage. Before she could finish, Shaeine reached out and touched her lightly between the eyes with a fingertip.

Mabel Cratchley crumpled like a paper doll. Shaeine dived forward and caught her before she could hit the floor and eased her the rest of the way down, showing surprising strength for someone so diminutive. Gingerly letting the old woman’s head come to rest on the floorboards, she placed a slate-gray hand over Mabel’s forehead and closed her own eyes in concentration. Men rose to their feet on all sides and crowded around.

“I find no physical ailment,” the drow said, “beyond the stresses of age. However, I am not as familiar with human anatomy, and problems in the mind are difficult to diagnose at best. Is this normal behavior?”

“No,” rumbled a huge man in a faded old Imperial Army coat. “Miz Cratchley is a lady of strong opinions, but I never seen her get like that. Never.”

“Here now,” someone said near the back, “what’s the dark elf done to ‘er? We oughtta—”

“You shut the hell up, Wilson,” Mr. Crete snapped. “The elf just saved her from prob’ly busting her own heart, and we all know it. Ain’t nobody got time for your trouble-makin’. Tommy, run quick and fetch Dr. Akers. And Prin, you go get Father Laws and the Sheriff.”

“I’m an errand girl now?” Principia muttered, but did so while moving. In seconds she was out the door, right on the heels of the boy who had exited at Jonas’s first command.

“Is there…I mean, can we help at all?” Teal asked worriedly. She had worked her way around to the door and managed to squeeze in next to Shaeine.

“Best leave this to the professionals now,” Jonas replied, scratching his head. He nodded respectfully to Shaeine. “You stopped her from doin’ herself real harm there, miss, an’ I appreciate that. But I think now we need to give her some space till the doc gets here. That means y’all! Everybody move back, let the woman breathe.”

Grumbling, the crowd shuffled backward from the fallen old woman, only Mr. Crete staying close to watch over her.

“Maybe we should just…” Teal trailed off, but Shaeine nodded to her, and they slipped through the swinging doors.

The huge man in the army coat came out right behind them. In the dimness of the moonlit street, his enormous mustache and bushy eyebrows made his size even more intimidating. “Ladies,” he said, nodding respectfully to them, “If you don’t mind I’d feel better if you allowed me to walk you back to the stairs.”

“I believe we are capable of looking after ourselves,” Shaeine replied.

“Ain’t what concerns me, ma’am,” he said. “On average, one of you University kids is worth at least four drunk galoots in a scrap. But if it should happen that you need to ‘look after yerselves,’ there’ll be real trouble after that. The kind that don’t go away as long as anybody’s left alive to remember it. Nobody in this town’ll have a go at you if I come with.”

The girls exchanged a look. “Um, yeah,” Teal said at last. “We’d appreciate the company.”

He nodded and fell in alongside them, and they headed up the street.

“How likely is it that there will be ‘real’ trouble, do you think?” asked Shaeine.

“Not very likely at all,” he replied. “This here’s a good town, full of good people. Folks who’re more familiar with the outlandish than the average run o’ frontiersmen, besides. You did a good turn for Miz Cratchley when nobody’d have blamed you for just lettin’ her bust ‘er own heart, and that’s what most in that room will remember.” He snorted, rather like a bull, causing his huge mustache to flutter. “But, only takes one idjit to wreck the peace for everybody. I learnt that in the army: if a given outcome is bad enough, you plan for it, no matter how unlikely it is to happen.”

“That is a wise policy,” Shaeine said approvingly.

He nodded. “I’m Ox Whipporwill, by the way, an’ pleased to make your acquaintance. I hope this don’t put you off visitin’ the town.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said Teal, having regained most of her equilibrium. “Like you said…it only takes one. And there’s a few like that in every town. Doesn’t pay to let them upset you.”

“Well said, miss, well said.” They had kept a brisk pace; Ox didn’t rush, but the easy reach of his enormous legs had them both making quick steps. In just a few minutes, they had reached the edge of town and the abrupt beginning of the steps up the mountain. He turned to face them and tugged the brim of his hat to Teal. “Ma’am, I surely did enjoy your singin’. I never heard nothin’ like it before, an’ I got to see the opera in Tiraas once. I do hope you’ll come an’ play for us again sometime.”

“I’d love to,” she said, unable to repress a grin of pleasure.

He tugged his hat again to Shaeine, receiving a bow in return. “Night, ladies. You have a safe trip home.”

They had ascended almost to the height of the scrolltower before Shaeine spoke. “Your song… It is the strangest thing, but I cannot recall any of the lyrics.”

Teal stumbled over a step, clutching her guitar case protectively against her body before regaining her balance. Then she sighed and continued trudging upward, not meeting her companion’s questioning gaze. “There weren’t any lyrics, Shaeine. I was humming.”

The dark elf’s eternally calm face grew considerably more intent, the closest Teal had seen to a frown on her. “I was certain the song told a story. Now that I recall, I am not sure why…”

“I…it’s…I didn’t mean to…ugh.” She threw back her head, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and said, “Her name’s Vadrieny. My…partner. She has a kind of voice magic, really the only magic she can use…sometimes, when I play, it sort of seeps out. I don’t do that on purpose; I think it’s cheating. A bard should be able to move an audience with the sheer power of the music itself, or nothing at all. But, we’re…we’re still working out how to exist together, and things like that sometimes happen. I can’t control it. The only way to control the effect would be for me to let her take over, completely, which…is probably not a good spectacle to show a saloon full of cowboys.”

Shaeine nodded. “I understand, then. Thank you.”

After a dozen more steps, Teal spoke again, very softly. “Thank you, too. For not digging.”

Shaeine turned her head and smiled, and this time there was no doubt at all of the genuine feeling behind it. “You will speak of it when you choose to. There is no hurry.”

They climbed the rest of the way in comfortable silence.

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1 – 4

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Trissiny perched in a hard wooden chair; it was the only one that lacked armrests to tangle up her sword when she sat. Zaruda sprawled in an overstuffed armchair, twisting her belt so that her sword lay across her lap. Teal and Shaeine perched on the couch with a person-width between them, Fross continued to buzz about everyone’s heads and Juniper settled herself warily in one of the remaining seats.

While Janis, still chattering pleasantly, poured tea into seven cups (Trissiny wondered what she expected Fross to do with hers), the girls silently studied each other with naked speculation. Except for Shaeine, who appeared to be meditating with her eyes open.

“Dig in, everybody! Go on, go on, there’s absolutely no call to be shy; this is your home, after all. And you’ll all be needing a little something to nourish the body after that awful hike you had up to the campus.” Janis stood back, beaming at them, and didn’t settle herself into the last chair until everybody had taken a teacup and a cookie or sandwich from the tray. Fross eventually settled on the rim of the last remaining cup; perched as she was on the coffee table between them, her faint bluish glow cast a pale light across all their faces.

“Right, then!” the house mother went on in her improbably happy tone when nobody volunteered to speak. “To start off, I’d like us to play a little ‘getting to know you’ game!” Zaruda groaned and Teal grimaced, both of which she ignored. “We’ll just go around the circle here, and everybody can introduce herself, tell us what you’re studying and then tell us something interesting about yourself! Who wants to start off?”

“Sure, I’ll get it over with,” said Zaruda easily, setting her untouched teacup back on the coffee table. She stood and bowed dramatically, gesticulating with a handful of cookies. “I am Zaruda Carmelita Xingyu Sameera Meredith Punaji, and no, I don’t expect you to remember the whole thing; you can call me Ruda unless I tell ya otherwise. I’m technically royalty, but don’t let that put you off. My father’s Blackbeard Punaji, the Pirate King. So, yeah, we don’t really stand on ceremony.”

“You’re a pirate?” Trissiny said in alarm.

Zaruda grinned and gestured at herself. “Chyeah! What, in this getup you thought I was a seamstress?”

“I thought you were a princess…”

“For a given value of ‘princess,’ sure. We don’t have spoiled nobles where I come from; I work for a living.”

“As a pirate.”

“This going to be a problem?” She stared flatly at Trissiny, the grin melting from her face.

“All right, then!” Janis interjected, smiling broadly. “Ruda, what do you plan to study here at the University?”

Zaruda lowered herself back into her chair with a shrug, her easy smile returning. “I dunno. Whatever’s lyin’ around, I guess.”

“Um, all right then!” She turned her beaming smile on Trissiny. “Would you care to go next, dear?”

“I…certainly.” She elected not to stand up; after Zaruda’s performance, it seemed self-indulgent. “My name is Trissiny Avelea; I’m the chosen Hand of Avei. The only one currently, but the goddess can elect as many paladins as she likes. She has in times past. I grew up at the Abbey attached to the primary Temple of Avei in Viridill.” She swallowed, feeling the unaccustomed weight of eyes on her. Sisters of Avei practiced modesty as a spiritual virtue; a good soldier didn’t seek attention for herself. “Right now I’m enrolled as a double major in martial arts and the divinity program, but I may narrow that to one or the other as I become more familiar with the school. This is all new to me…”

“It’s new to everybody,” said Teal with an easy smile, which Trissiny returned gratefully.

“Very good, dear,” Janis beamed. “Now, if we’re going around the circle—”

“Oh! That’s me, then!” The pixie shot straight into the air, almost upsetting her teacup in passing. “My name is Fross and I’m here because the Pixie Queen decided to start strengthening ties with the human world and Professor Tellwyrn who’s not even a human was the only person willing to take her seriously, which is a little insulting I guess but on the other hand I can sort of see how we’d seem, I dunno, more cute than impressive to people as big as you guys, no offense. I am studying to become a mage because I have a natural knack for magic of all kinds and I’m really interested in the arcane magic that humans practice but it’s pretty hard to pick up any information on that where I come from so of course I’m very glad to be here!” She buzzed in a complete circle around their heads. “And I’m very glad to meet all of you and I look forward to living with you!”

“Thank you, Fross.” Even Janis seemed a little dazed by all that.

Not waiting to be prompted, Shaeine rose smoothly to her feet and bowed to them. “I am Shaeine, daughter of Ashaele, matriarch of House Awarrion. My family serve the Queen of Tar’naris primarily in diplomatic capacities, which led to my selection as part of Her Majesty’s program to strengthen ties with the Tiraan Empire. I have selected a major of history, which is deeply interesting to me. Since I am an ordained priestess of Themynra, I will not be harmed by holy energy, but as a subterranean dweller I don’t appreciate bright lights in my eyes.”

“I said I was sorry!” Trissiny and Fross said simultaneously.

“Now, now, let’s not dwell on little missteps,” Janis said soothingly, “such things are bound to happen, and we put them behind us. Teal, dear, care to go next?”

The short-haired girl cleared her throat, then lifted her teacup to them as if in a toast. “Well, I’m Teal Falconer, music major, looking to become an accredited bard eventually. I’ll be playing and singing quite a bit, but I’ll try not to bother anybody. There’s, ah, not much interesting about me.”

“How can you say that?” Trissiny burst out. “The Talisman of Absolution is only given to creatures ordinarily aligned against the gods who devote themselves to the service of the Church. You’d have to be a thing of unspeakable evil with a heart of gold to get that! It must be an incredible story!”

“Okay!” Janis said with frantic good cheer, her smile seeming to crack at the edges. “Going forward, let’s not refer to our housemates as things of unspeakable evil.”

“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said contritely. “Obviously your privacy is important. I just…such things are sort of relevant to my calling. Forgive me.”

“Hey, it’s not exactly a secret,” Teal said quickly, wearing a nervous half-grin. “I’m just not… I don’t much care to talk about myself, is all.”

“Well, you did very well, dear,” Janis said soothingly, “so let’s move on. Juniper, it’s down to you, honey.”

The green-haired girl waved, smiling pleasantly; she seemed oblivious to the tension in the room. “That’s me! I’m a dryad, but I guess you can tell that.”

“What’s a dryad?” asked Zaruda.

Juniper blinked a few times. “Um…oh. I’m not sure quite how to answer that…”

“Why not,” the pirate said lazily. “If you don’t know, who does?”

“What’s a human?” said Shaeine suddenly. “Explain it in a sentence.”

Zaruda blinked, frowned, and straightened in her seat. “Okay, point taken. Sorry.”

“Well, I guess we’ve got plenty of time to get to know each other,” said Juniper cheerfully, “but since this is just basic introductions, dryads are a kind of tree spirit. I’m like Shaeine and Fross; here from the fae kingdom as a kind of diplomatic outreach. Dealing politely with humans is going to be better in the long run than ignoring or fighting them, I guess.”

“Where’s the fae kingdom?” asked Teal.

“Um…” Juniper seemed nonplussed by this question. “Everywhere?”

“And what are you studying, Juniper, dear?” Janis piped in, clearly trying to steer the conversation back on track.

“Well, I haven’t really decided yet. I mean, I read the list of available majors and they all look very interesting, but that’s because I don’t know what most of them even are. I think I’ll have to get a little more used to things here before I pick one.”

“Undeclared, then,” said Janis, smiling warmly. “Don’t you worry about that, dear, lots of freshmen start out that way.”

“I, uh, wasn’t worried?” The dryad tilted her head. “Should I be?”

“All right!” Janis clapped her hands together. “So, that’s everybody. Wasn’t that fun?” Zaruda snorted into an otherwise chilly silence, but the house mother pressed on. “Life here is pretty simple! You’ll be busy with classes and such soon enough, but you’ll have enough free time to relax a bit, as well. Unless the campus is locked down for any reason, which almost never happens, you can always visit Last Rock, but students aren’t permitted to take a Rail out or otherwise leave the town unless accompanied by a professor.”

“So, what, we’re stuck here?” Zaruda frowned.

“Oh, not at all, dear, this is only during the academic year. Vacation times are your own, and anyway, more of your professors than otherwise grade based on field work, so you’ll actually be traveling quite a bit! Depending on what classes you have, of course. This being your first semester, you’ll mostly be in the same classes; they like to start you kids off with the general education credits first and then move on to your individual studies. Your Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedules and Tuesday-Thursday morning classes will be as a group, with Tuesday-Thursday afternoons for major studies, depending on what you’ve enrolled in.

“The house rules are pretty simple; no complicated magic in the tower without supervision. We woudn’t want you to destabilize the spells holding it up, haha!” Trissiny wasn’t the only one to grab the sides of her chair at that eerie reminder. “No boys in the tower, either, and that’s not a rule you can break; the tower’s spelled to prevent them entering. Aside from that, just use your common sense and try not to start fires in your rooms or anything.” She chortled happily at that, but Juniper looked alarmed and Zaruda rolled her eyes.

“Where are the boys?” Teal asked.

“Oh, they’re lodged somewhere else, dear, don’t you worry about that. You’ll meet them in class tomorrow.”

“Fitting,” said Shaeine with a solemn nod. “Men are delicate creatures; they require careful handling.”

Everyone gaped at her, which she appeared not to notice, sipping her tea.

“Six of them, too?” asked Zaruda, sitting up straighter in her chair.

“Actually, that’s sort of a funny story,” said Janis. “The balance usually skews in the opposite direction, but this year you girls heavily outnumber the lads. Only two in the freshman class.”

“DIBS!” shouted Zaruda, waving a hand in the air.

“On which?” Trissiny demanded.

“I will let you know!”

“I’d pace yourself, Ruda,” said Janis with a conspirational grin. “Your first class tomorrow is with Professor Tellwyrn. She has zero patience for clowning or horseplay. Unless she’s the one doing it.” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “Um, I didn’t say that last part. Tell no one.”

Shaeine raised an eyebrow. “Tell no one what? I heard nothing.”

“I think I’m going to really like you girls!” The house mother giggled, and for the first time Trissiny had to wonder how old she was. Janis looked to be in her late twenties, but she acted like a strangely motherly teenager. “Well, that’s all I have for now. Anything any of you’d like to talk about?”

An awkward silence descended.

“Well,” Trissiny said, rising from her seat, “unless someone needs me for something, I have evening prayers to perform.”

“There’s a lovely chapel on campus!” said Janis. “Have you seen it yet?”

“I haven’t…I think I’ll explore later. My room will suffice for now. Ruda, you of course may come and go as you wish but I’ll ask that you leave me in peace for a while if you’re coming back to the room.”

“Y’know what, you go ahead. Knock yourself out.” Zaruda waved a hand at her. “I think I’ll hang out down here for a while.”

“Very good. It’s been a pleasure to meet all of you.” Trissiny bowed somewhat awkwardly, a gesture Shaeine returned with enviable smoothness without even rising from her seat. She turned and strode back to the staircase, conscious of eyes upon her back.

As she rounded the curve into the shadows above, a faint murmur of conversation rose behind her.


 

Trissiny felt, as always, refreshed and calmer after time spent in prayer; it helped that Zaruda had not returned to their room. With the tension of the day bled away by contemplation of the goddess, she felt calm enough to return to the window, pull aside the curtains and gaze outside.

The sun had set while she prayed. The view from Clarke Tower was much less nauseating at night, and even more beautiful, mostly because in the darkness she couldn’t see how far from the ground she was. A glittering vault of stars was obscured by only a few patchy clouds, and Trissiny stood there for long minutes, just looking at them. They, at least, were the same as back home. The world seemed divided in half, the spangled sky meeting the black line of the horizon in a single, even border that circumnavigated the world. It made the sky seem larger than in the hilly territory of Viridill, where mountains rose up on all sides to obscure the lower portions of the sky. Still, it was peaceful.

She considered going to bed, but prayer left her feeling both serene and energized, and she knew from experience that sleep wouldn’t come easily in that state. Casting about for something to do, she glanced over at the stack of books from the Abbey and winced. Maybe…another day. It occurred to her to wonder where Zaruda was. She really shouldn’t get in the habit of staying out late but this early in the semester, but it might be wise to make an effort to befriend the other girls of her class. After all, she had just walked out on them. Hopefully they’d understand the importance of prayer, but there was no reason to encourage hard feelings.

Satisfied with this reasoning, Trissiny belted her sword back on and headed down the stairs.

She paused outside Teal and Juniper’s door, which was still closed, but there was no sound from within and after a moment she decided not to knock; years in the barracks had trained her not to infringe on anyone’s privacy unless she had a specific need. They were probably all still down in the parlor with Janis. Nodding to herself, she continued on.

The echo of voices was faint; sound bounced oddly off the curved walls of the stairwell and was deadened by the absurdly plush carpet, so it couldn’t have been coming from far ahead. As she drew in sight of the third floor door and beheld it standing open several inches, Trissiny determined the speakers had to be within. She was almost abreast of the door before words became audible.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Zaruda’s voice declared loudly. “You don’t have to room with her!”

Trissiny froze.

“Are we still talking about this?” Teal’s voice groaned.

“At least one of us is,” Shaeine said softly. Were they all in there?

“Come on, guys, look at this from my point of view. She’s already almost stabbed Shaeine, tried to interrogate Teal at the meeting and you should’ve seen the way she glared at me when I walked into my own room earlier. This may be funny for you but I’ve gotta worry about getting a sword amidships while I sleep!”

“Um, I really didn’t feel any hostility from her.” Juniper’s voice was nervous, uncertain. “But I’m not so adept at reading humans yet…”

Trissiny’s heart pounded painfully. They were all in there, talking about her. Every instinct born of her training shouted at her to knock, or speak, or announce her presence somehow; eavesdropping was toweringly rude at the very least, and arguably a moral failing. But she felt frozen, listening to them.

“Nobody’s going to stab you in your sleep,” Teal said patiently.

“Okay, why doesn’t somebody switch rooms with me, then! See how you like it. I asked van Richter, she said the rooming assignments aren’t set in stone and somebody always changes, every semester.”

“I don’t agree that Trissiny’s intentions are hostile,” said Shaeine calmly, “but it is early yet. I am not sure I would feel safe sleeping in her presence until I know her better.”

“See!?” Ruda shouted. “How about you, June? Since you don’t think she’s dangerous?”

“Um…”

“Ruda, stop it,” Teal said firmly. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“Yeah? Why don’t you move in with her, then? C’mon, she likes you. You got that Merit Badge of Evil-But-Not-Evil.”

“Absolutely not.”


 

Shaeine’s head swiveled suddenly toward the door. Rising smoothly, she glided across the floorboards to push it the rest of the way open.

“Is…is anyone…” Teal trailed off, her heart rising into her throat. Gods above, if someone had overheard their discussion… Janis would not be happy, to say the least, but if it was Trissiny…

“Nothing,” said Shaeine, pulling the door gently closed. “I thought I heard…well. Sound echoes confusingly in this stairwell.”

“Back to the subject at hand, then!” Ruda half-sat, half-lay sprawled in a corner, occasionally drinking from a bottle of whiskey. So far, nobody had bothered to ask where it had come from. “If you’re so in favor of Trissiny, why’re you so opposed to rooming with her?”

“Because, as I said, you’re being ridiculous. More to the point, Ruda, you’re being unfair. None of us know thing one about each other at this point, Janis’s little game notwithstanding, and we know even less about Trissiny because she’s not been part of this conversation.”

“Cos she’s too holy to hang out with us mere mortals,” Zaruda sneered.

“Because she is a person with a sacred calling, and thus has an obligation to spend time in prayer,” said Shaeine. “As do I. You may believe as you choose, but for me to condemn her as asocial due to that would be the height of hypocrisy.”

“Besides, some people just don’t like large groups,” said Teal reasonably.

Zaruda snorted. “Large groups? Y’all should try sleeping belowdecks in a storm sometime.”

“Okay, I’ve gotta say, I am completely confused,” said Fross, who was fluttering around the ceiling. “I thought Trissiny seemed nice!”

“Guys, I’m telling you, you’d know what I meant if you’d seen her earlier. All I did was come in the door and there she is, making fists and looking like she wants to kick me out the window.”

“If I may ask,” Shaeine interjected, continuing to arrange dark silken tapestries along her walls, “did you enter your room the way you did mine a few minutes ago?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Only that if you burst in, shouting and gesticulating with a wine bottle, upon a highly-trained warrior who doubtless feels as out-of-place and uncertain as the rest of us to begin with, much of the responsibility would fall on your head if she had struck you.”

“Shaiene nailed it,” said Teal approvingly, nodding at the drow, who paused in her work to nod back politely. “We are all of us in a new place, surrounded by virtual strangers, homesick and scared pantsless about sitting through class with the most dangerous individual in the Empire tomorrow. I’ll admit if, if nobody else will. I don’t assume I’m a good judge of what any of you are really like, because I’ve only met you while we’re all stressed as hell. Trissiny’s in exactly the same boat as the rest of us.” She sighed and sat down next to Juniper on Fross’s bed, which the pixie had told them to treat as a couch since she didn’t need it. “Ruda, just give it time. In three weeks if you two still can’t get along, maybe we’ll talk about redoing the room situation. But seriously, give her a fair chance before you start trying to upend the whole tower.”

The pirate grumbled to herself and took a long pull from her bottle.

“And I’ll tell you something else,” Teal went on grimly. “Your arguments are flimsy and your instinctive dislike of her is irrational. If I were to start making assumptions about people, I wouldn’t start with Trissiny. It looks to me like you’re trying to grasp for a sense of control because you’re more comfortable fighting than trying to get along with people who’re different from you.”

“What did you call me?” Zaruda straightened from her slump, glaring.

“Actually, that seemed pretty spot-on,” said Juniper. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, you’re so much prettier when you smile.”

“I would not have put it so bluntly,” added Shaeine, “but it is a common enough tactic among those of a warlike disposition. It is worth pointing out that, considering that we are all here discussing Trissiny in her absence, it is not she who is chiefly guilty of hostile behavior.”

Zaruda swept her glare around the room, but nobody backed down. Finally, she sighed, sloughing back against the wall. “Three weeks, huh.” She took another drink from the bottle. “Fine, we’ll see. But you’re all gonna feel pretty stupid if one of us turns up dead.”


 

Trissiny paid no attention to where she was going. The paths of the University were well-lit at night; on her previous trip through the campus during the daylight she hadn’t even noticed the glass orbs hovering unsupported over the paths, but in the darkness they put out a steady white glow that drowned out even the moonlight. She barely noticed them now.

She wanted to hunch over and wrap her arms around herself as she walked, but fought off the impulse. Proper posture was as much a part of her as her sword…as was the instinct not to show vulnerability.

No one had ever hated her before.

Mechanically she put one foot in front of the other, staying on the paths but not seeing where they led. At the Abbey she’d been a hero. Because of Avei’s calling more than anything she’d actually done, but the knowledge of that disparity had driven her to work twice as hard, to make herself worthy of the attention. Even before the goddess had singled her out at fifteen, she had been well-liked among the other initiates. How had she offended everyone so badly in the course of one afternoon?

Trissiny raised her head and found that she’d wandered back to the open lawn she had seen earlier. Though she’d passed a few other students on the way, this place was empty now. Slowly, she made her way over to the gazebo and climbed the three steps into its shade. It was darker here, with no light-globes nearby and the roof obstructing the stars.

So this was what it would be like here. Mother Narny had tried to warn here that out in the world, she would quickly meet people who resented Avei and all she represented, and would resent Trissiny by proxy.

She finally let herself slump into a bench, staring down at her boots.

She was a warrior. Her whole life was the expectation of battle. How could she let herself be so…hurt? It was just a few words from a few girls who didn’t really know her. She swiped at her eyes; the tears weren’t there, and she wasn’t going to let them be. This whole thing was just stupid.

“You okay?”

Trissiny lunged halfway to her feet, gripping her sword, and the boy who’d spoken hopped back, raising his hands peaceably.

“Sorry! Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”

“I… No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let myself be snuck up on.” She sank back down onto the bench. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“Okay, well…I won’t bother you, if that’s what you want, but I don’t think Avei approves of lying.”

She snapped her head up to glare at him. Something about him seemed familiar, though she couldn’t place him and hardly knew that many boys anyway. He had skin the darkest shade of brown she’d ever seen, and curly hair trimmed very close to his head. The expression on his face was pure open friendliness.

“Do I know you?”

“Oh…sorry, I guess that was maybe a little presumptuous.” He smiled ruefully. “It’s just hard not to recognize you, what with the armor and all. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you since I learned we were both coming here this fall.” The boy extended a hand to her. “Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu. Toby to my friends, which I hope includes you.”

“Oh!” Trissiny rose again, fully this time, and grasped his hand. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’d been hoping to meet you, too, Mr…ah, Toby. I’m Trissiny. Avelea. Um, sorry, I’m just really out of sorts tonight.”

“Yeah, I got that impression.” Letting go of her hand, he hopped up the steps in one stride and seated himself on the bench opposite her, placing them on both sides of the gazebo’s entrance. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, of course, but it’s amazing how much it can help just to talk about what’s on your mind.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she muttered, slumping back onto her seat. “It’s stupid, anyway.”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.”

Trissiny cast about for something to say that would get rid of him. Omnu’s followers were all about compassion and there would be no shaking a paladin of that deity if he believed she actually needed help. She lifted her head; he was just sitting there, watching her. He had the kindest eyes she’d ever seen.

“Everyone hates me!” she burst out.

“That’s hard to imagine…”

Still with a polite demurral half-formed, Trissiny listened to herself babble on in growing horror; it was as if her mouth was done taking orders. “They do, though, everyone in my house, I heard them talking about it. That makes it even worse! I mean, what kind of person listens in on a private conversation?! I was raised better than that! But they were all talking about me and how they apparently think I’m going to murder them in their beds and I was just, I don’t know, frozen. And the worst part is, this is all so stupid! Why do I—how can I possibly even care about this? I’m a paladin, my whole life is going to be spent applying a sword to people who’re going to hate me no matter what. It’s just ridiculous that this bothers me so much. But it does, and now I don’t even want to go back to my room…”

He just sat there, watching her and listening, his expression attentive without offering a trace of pity, until she finally trailed off and drew in a long, shuddering breath, trying to get herself back under control. She was not going to cry, damn it!

“That’s rough,” Toby murmured. “But first of all, there’s nothing stupid at all about feeling hurt when people are jerks to you.”

“I don’t think they were jerks to me,” she muttered. “I…I think they’re afraid of me.”

“Can I tell you what I think?”

She sighed. “Fine.”

“It sounds to me like a misunderstanding. Whatever you did to set them off, they probably took somewhat out of context. I mean, come on. You’re the Hand of Avei, champion of justice, protector of the weak. I know you didn’t walk in there and say or do anything you meant as a threat. Speaking from experience, we paladins can take a little getting used to.”

“We do?” She looked up at him miserably.

“If I remember right, you’re from Viridill, right? Grew up at the Temple there?”

“In the attached Abbey, but close enough.”

He nodded. “No offense intended, Trissiny, but…honestly, I bet you’re a little sheltered. I was raised at the primary Temple of Omnu, but that’s in Tiraas a stone’s throw from the Imperial palace itself. Literally, my friend Gabriel threw a stone onto the Emperor’s balcony once.”

“Ooh, ouch,” she winced. “Is he still alive?”

Toby laughed. “Yeah, he’s got a knack for getting out of the trouble he gets into. But my point is, I’m used to the politics and the fast pace of the capital. It’s…well, the first thing you learn there is that life is a bunch of confusing gray areas. It can be really hard to take a stand for what’s important and hold to it when you’re surrounded by people who genuinely think nothing means anything and all that matters is power.”

“You think that’s what it’s going to be like here?” Trissiny wanted to groan.

“No…I think the University is going to be a whole different tank of fish. More, uh, detectible shades of gray, maybe. But still, it’s just not going to be as simple as being only around people who share your faith and your convictions.”

“Great. So I’m naïve as well as a menace.” She sighed.

Toby stood up, walked over and sat down beside her, resting a hand on her shoulder. She couldn’t feel his skin through her armor, but there was something reassuring about the weight of it. “I wouldn’t put it that way. You’ve just got a little adjusting to do. Avei’s paladins have been a force for everything that’s right in the world for thousands of years, and I know she didn’t call you by accident. You’ll do fine, Trissiny; remember you’ve got a goddess to help you through it.” He smiled at her, so warmly that she couldn’t help returning it.

“Besides,” he went on, “keep in mind your housemates are all as lost and scrambling to adjust as you and I are right now. I bet you anything when things start to settle down, you’ll find out they didn’t mean any harm.”

She took a steadying breath and nodded. “I…may have exaggerated when I said they all hated me. Teal seemed to be, I don’t know, trying to calm things down.”

“Oh, that’s right, you’ll be rooming with Teal Falconer.” He grinned, nodding. “That’s good, she’s a natural born peacemaker. Yeah, I highly doubt Teal suspected you of anything nefarious.”

“You’ve met Teal?” She let out a huff of breath. “Does everyone here know more about what’s going on than me?”

Toby laughed. “Oh, no, nothing like that; I got to spend some time with her a few years ago when she was at the Church in Tiraas. They weren’t exactly giving her the run of the place, for obvious reasons; it’s spooky going from your own cozy life to being cooped up by suspicious priests. We were both sort of in need of a friend.”

Trissiny felt a perplexing stab of envy for her housemate; it must have been nice, getting to know Toby in a more comfortable place than this increasingly disturbing campus. Or had that really been comfortable? He didn’t make it sound so…

“Is that when she got that Talisman?”

“Yeah… Teal has a demon inside her. It was some kind of possession attempt that went wrong. She’s got control of it, and the Talisman of Absolution helps her keep it contained and protects her from holy magic.”

“Wow…” she breathed. “Yeah, I guess it would burn a possessed person, wouldn’t it? That’d be an awful surprise if someone was trying to heal her.”

“Exactly. Look, I may have said too much about this already; it’s her business.”

“No, I understand. That’s fine, thank you for telling me. I’d been wondering.”

Smiling at her again, he stood. He really did have the kindest eyes… “Well, class starts early and Professor Tellwyrn is…legendary. Showing up half-asleep probably isn’t a good idea, so we ought to get to bed. I’m glad to have met you, Trissiny.”

“You too,” she replied, then smiled hesitantly. “Thanks for listening, Toby. You’re…a good listener.”

“That’s what I’m here for.” He gave her that glowing smile again, then reached over to squeeze her shoulder one more time. “You’re going to be fine. I promise.”

She sat there, watching him stride away across the shadowed green. What a nice boy… Growing up in the Abbey one didn’t get the best impressions of men. It was good to know the world had kind ones. She’d already met a few since leaving home, of course. But, she reflected, tilting her head as she watched Tobias make his way down the path, they weren’t all that pleasant to look at…

Trissiny clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, good. That’s great, Triss,” she muttered. “Meet the only other paladin in the world and you immediately start drooling. Goddess, I’m worse than the pirate…”


 

Zaruda had apparently prevaricated about not packing anything but what was in the pockets of her coat. When Trissiny got back to her room, she discovered that half of it had been utterly transformed by colorful rugs, wall hangings and throw pillows, all heavily embroidered and most with gilded fringes and tassels. It was as if the room had been turned into some kind of harem, albeit with maps tacked up onto the walls. Or at least, half of it had. Zaruda had arranged her rugs on a very precise line along the floor, perfectly bisecting the room. Trissiny’s side was still as spartan as ever.

The pirate herself was reclining in her bed, her face hidden behind an issue of Varsity Princess. She had finally removed her coat and hat; they currently decorated one corner of her wardrobe’s open door. Seeing Zaruda in nothing but trousers and that ruffled wrap around her upper chest, Trissiny had to revise her impression of the girl as plump. She was short and had a curvy frame, yes, but her arms and abdomen showed solid muscle. Piracy, she reflected, must be hard work.

“Hello,” she said carefully, receiving a grunt in reply. She sighed and began removing her armor, carefully arranging it on the floor beside her bed. “We’d better not stay up too late. Class comes early.”

“Hm.”

Trissiny paused for a moment, looking up at her roommate. “I’m not going to attack you or anything, you know. We’re all here to learn. I don’t want any problems.”

“Yeah, you know what’s good for that?” A pair of dark eyes appeared over the rim of the magazine, the blue gem glinting in the magic light of the glow-ball. “Stop creating problems.”

Biting back an unhelpful reply, Trissiny stripped down to her shift and pulled back the thin blanket on her bed; Zaruda vanished behind the pages again. Trissiny padded across the cold floor, not stepping on any of the rugs, and pulled the wall lever by the door, plunging the room into darkness.

“Hey!”

“Good night, Zaruda.”

There came a flutter of paper and a thump as the magazine was thrown into a wall. Trissiny climbed into bed and lay still, listening to her roommate’s growling and shuffling as she crawled under her own blankets. She missed the barracks, the quieter sounds of the other girls. Girls she knew and trusted.

She would not cry. Not yet, at least.

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“Thank you,” Trissiny said weakly, trying not to dwell on what was under her feet, and what wasn’t. “Did you say…upper room?”

Janis clucked her tongue, practically radiating sympathy. “You poor dear; I know, I know! More stairs, right after that awful hike up the mountain. And you wearing armor! But it’s almost over, I promise, and this’ll be much easier on your feet. We’ve got just the best carpeting on these steps. C’mon, I’ll show you!”

She led an unresisting Trissiny across the room, where two doorways occupied a corner. One, into which Janis immediately climbed, led to a spiraling staircase, twisting upward into shadows. As she passed by, Trissiny glanced into the other; it led into a short hallway, in which all that was visible was a closed door and another arched doorway that didn’t appear to have one.

“It’s a bit cozy here, but with only six girls Clarke Tower’s just the right size,” Janis nattered on as they climbed. “You saw the parlor, of course. On the bottom floor there’s also the kitchen. Here’s my door!” she said as they arrived at a small landing. “The tower narrows a bit after the first floor, so it’s only one room per level from here on up. Now, you can knock on my door any old time you need anything, dear, I’m here to help with whatever problems you may have. Don’t be a stranger!”

Trissiny kept silent, following her hostess. Janis had been right about the stairs; they were covered in the thickest carpet she’d ever seen or imagined. It was like walking on dense moss. Aside from being easier on her tired feet, her steps were completely silent and even the thumping of her trunk against the stairs was muted, and didn’t seem to vibrate her arm as much. A dour corner of her battle-trained mind noted that anyone sneaking up to her room for any nefarious purpose would have the advantage of complete stealth; she’d never hear it coming. She shut that paranoid thought down as the voice of disgruntlement and fatigue. At least the staircase was well-lit. They passed a window every story or so and wall sconces gleamed with a steady light that had to be some manner of magic.

Janis kept up her cheery babble for the entire climb. Trissiny tried to pay polite attention but after a few sentences about the weather and fashion and how exciting the school year was going to be, her attention wandered. Apparently the woman just felt the need to talk, and wouldn’t stop just because she lacked anything relevant to say. They passed two more doors on their climb, at which Trissiny learned that her housemates assigned to the third floor had not arrived yet, and that one of the fourth-floor girls had come in that morning, much earlier than expected, and had already departed to explore the campus a bit.

“Of course I’ve got everyone’s travel schedule, dear, I like to be as prepared as possible. I’m so sorry you had to come in alone! It’s ever so much nicer to meet new friends as you’re moving in. But there’ll be two more Rail arrivals just after yours and the rest of the girls are supposed to be on them. They’re probably on the way up the mountain right now! So it’s about to get rather hectic, I’d imagine, but that’s just as well! A full house is a happy house, I always say. Ooh, and did I tell you about the attic? Well, it’s not exactly an attic, more of a study. Or music room. There’s a pianoforte on the top level, under the roof, and our little library; not much in the way of textbooks, but I like to keep a stock of some lighter reading. It can’t be all study, all the time, or we’d all go mad! And here we are, Trissiny dear: your new room!”

Stopping in front of the next door they came to, Janis opened the heavy wooden door and ushered her inside. Trissiny paused in the doorway, taking stock.

The staircase occupied its own little turret on the back side of the tower, leaving the main building open. Her room was much larger than she’d expected, almost circular and perfectly symmetrical. A straight wall across the side opposite the door interrupted the curve of the outer walls, with another door set in its center. On either side of that, two beds in heavy oak frames were flat against the straight sections of the wall; marching along the rest of the perimeter were two heavy wooden desks and two towering wardrobes, both elaborately carved and apparently ancient, to judge by their dark finish and numerous dents and pockmarks. Four narrow windows were spaced evenly along the walls, admitting the golden light of late afternoon. A line between the two doors could have been a mirror, both sides of the room so perfectly reflected each other.

Janis bustled past her and opened the opposite door. “Bathroom’s in here, dear; the Tower’s only about twenty years old, so it’s fully rigged up with plumbing. Imagine that! Cold and hot running water, all the way to the top! Oh, it’s common enough now, I suppose, but when all this was put in it was unheard of. Professor Tellwyrn’s always on top of the newest trends, which you really don’t see often in the really old elves. Omnu’s breath, don’t tell her I called her old!” She laughed heartily, making her bulging cleavage bounce alarmingly. “I know it’s not much, but of course you’re welcome to decorate it however you like. Small, yes, but cozy! I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable.”

“I’m used to sleeping in a barracks with eleven other girls,” Trissiny said slowly, still blinking in the doorway.

“Good heavens! This must seem like the lap of luxury, then!”

She nodded, keeping silent. It did seem luxurious to her, and that wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. Avei’s followers were not to indulge themselves in excessive comfort, nor take more than they needed. Truthfully, indoor plumbing was something she’d only heard of before, but she wasn’t about to say that and look like an unschooled hick.

“Now, you take your time getting settled in, Trissiny dear. We’re going to have a little get-together in a bit down in the parlor, but not till everyone else has arrived, of course! Forgive me for leaving you so soon but I had best go man the door and make sure to greet everyone as they get here. Dear me, I may not have the chance to show everyone else around individually…ah, but here I am still blathering on! Sorry to rush out…”

She hurried over and swept Trissiny into an impromptu hug. “Oof! Goodness, that armor isn’t joking around, is it? Now don’t you worry about a thing, dear, and remember, don’t hesitate to come find me if there’s anything you need, anything at all. Ta ta for now! We’ll all see you later at the meeting!”

“Thank you,” Trissiny said belatedly as the house mother bustled back out; she couldn’t make out words from the cheery reply, as Janis was already out of sight down the stairs. For such a stout woman, she certainly moved energetically.

After glancing back and forth a couple of times, Trissiny wheeled her trunk over and set it down by the bed on the right. The choice of sides made no difference that she could see.

She took a bit of time to investigate the bathroom and its fixtures. They were mostly self-explanatory, though there was a faucet above head height in the bathtub, which, though its purpose was apparent, struck her as incredibly indulgent. Another window provided illumination, but there was also one of those glass bulbs she’d seen in the stairwell, currently darkened. After a little experimentation, she learned to handle the light, too; it could be turned on or off by pulling a small lever attached to the wall by the door. There was another of these in the main room. Good to know.

The view out the windows was breathtaking, until she made the mistake of poking her head out to look down. Apparently Clarke Tower had a small outdoor terrace on the bottom level; it would have been a lovely little spot if it weren’t hanging terrifyingly in midair. Trissiny gulped and ducked back inside, then went quickly around the room pulling the curtains closed. They were flimsy things of pale blue lacework, not much of a barrier, but it was something.

Unpacking helped distract her. She owned little, having few personal needs, and all of it was within her trunk, plus a bit extra. Her spare clothing was quickly tucked away in the wardrobe; from this she learned that it lacked the proper accoutrements to store armor correctly. There had to be somewhere in Last Rock she could buy an armor stand, which really was little more than a few pieces of wood. In the meantime she could make do arranging it carefully on the floor by her bed, as per camping procedure. It did have drawers, as well, as space and hangers for clothes; her few toiletries filled only half of one.

The books she stacked carefully on her desk. Trissiny had been assured that the University library would provide the necessary textbooks, but Mother Narny and several of the other sisters had made her gifts of additional volumes, mostly of history and theology, which they feared her education might otherwise be lacking. Trissiny wasn’t much of a reader but felt an obligation to at least make an attempt…but not tonight, she reflected, studying the neat stack of battered old tomes.

Her other gift from Mother Narny was far more practical and immediately useful. The wooden fixtures for her sword and shield were enchanted to adhere to any surface, which was a lucky thing as there would be no question of driving nails into the stone walls of Clarke Tower. In short order, she had them both displayed above her bed.

Trissiny was standing back, studying her handiwork with some satisfaction, when the door to her room burst open with a bang. She spun, dropping into a fighting crouch and reaching fruitlessly at her waist for the sword she’d just put on the wall.

“PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!” roared the new arrival, then swaggered in, grinning at her. “Whoah with the fists, girl. Naphthene’s tits, I’m kidding! Let’s not start off with a scrap, eh, roomie? Maybe you need to work off a little tension but after dragging my ass up this mountain and then this crazy damn tower, I sure as hell don’t.”

“Sorry.” She straightened slowly, unclenching her hands. “I’m a little on edge. That was…quite an entrance.”

“Only kind I make, babe!” Her apparent roommate was a somewhat plump girl a head shorter than herself with nut-brown skin; she was dressed in an ankle-length coat of brown leather, over a midriff-baring shirt that seemed made of ruffles, baggy trousers and knee-high boots. A sword was belted on over her coat, an ostentatious rapier with an extravagantly bejeweled gold handle. Topping off this ensemble was a wide-brimmed hat bristling with a spray of colorful feathers. Striding into the room, she swept this off and executed an elaborate bow, revealing black hair in a tight braid, and a tiny blue gemstone somehow affixed between her eyebrows. “Princess Zaruda Carmelita Xingyu Sameera Meredith Punaji, commander of all I survey and your new bunkmate. My friends call me Ruda, those of them I let live.” She straightened, replacing her hat, and grinned.

“I’m Trissiny Avelea.” She extended a hand, hoping her growing dismay didn’t show on her face. “You’re a princess?”

“And you’re a paladin!” Zaruda crossed the room in three long strides and clasped Trissiny’s wrist in a warrior’s handshake, still wearing that faintly maniacal grin. “I guess we should both be honored, eh? Should be an interesting semester.”

“I…suppose. Didn’t you pack anything?”

“Course I did, you think I’m an idiot?” Releasing Trissiny’s hand, she tugged on her lapels. “Got everything I need here in my pockets. But unpacking later—tonight, we party! Last chance before we gotta waste time studying and shit, right?” She nudged Trissiny with her elbow, winking broadly. “The nice lady with the rack said we’re having some kind of get-together down in the front room. Sounds about as exciting as tea with the Emperor’s granny, but we might as well put in an appearance, eh? Check out the competition, at least. TO ARMS!”

With this bellow, she pointed at the door as though commanding a charge, and swaggered back out. Trissiny tried to swallow the sudden sinking feeling that she wasn’t going to be getting much sleep this semester. She elected to leave the cumbersome shield behind, but grabbed her sword before following. There wasn’t likely to be much danger here, but its weight at her side comforted her. Besides, Zaruda wore hers around.

There was something new in the spiraling stairwell: music. The soft sounds of a harp echoed off the curving walls, a gentle melody that made Trissiny think of the small mountain streams back home. Ahead, Zaruda half-turned to give her a thoughtful look, but didn’t speak. Trissiny didn’t want to make any sounds to cover the music, either; it was a relief to learn her new roommate wasn’t completely infatuated with the sound of her own voice after all. Their boots silent on the plush carpet, they followed the steps down, soft chords growing louder with every step.

At the next landing down, the door was now flung wide open, revealing a scene of chaos. Posters had been somehow tacked up on the stone walls, showing a variety of magical carriages, the new kind that needed no animals to pull them; Trissiny had seen a few of those over the years, but the ones depicted in the room’s artwork were much more extravagant, fancifully shaped and lavishly painted. A music stand stood in the middle of the floor, laden with pages, a large floor harp under a window, and two cases appropriately sized to hold a guitar and violin sat beside one of the beds. Clothes were strewn everywhere: draped over the desk chairs, scattered on the bed, hanging from the open doors of a wardrobe, piled on the floor.

Sitting on a heap of coats on the edge of her bed, a girl bent over a gilded lap harp, her fingers gliding deftly across its strings, seeming to caress them and producing that otherworldly music. She had brown hair cropped boyishly short and was dressed in the height of men’s fashion, with crisply-pressed slacks and a sharp coat over a waistcoat and white shirt, its collar hanging open where a necktie would ordinarily go. Though Trissiny wasn’t well-versed in clothes, especially men’s clothes, she could tell these had been tailored to their owner; they hugged her figure in such a way that despite the hair and the suit she would never be mistaken for a boy.

Zaruda and Trissiny both stopped just outside the open door; the girl with the harp played on, apparently oblivious to them. Trissiny felt an urge to close her eyes, which she resisted, but she let the music flow over her, bringing a sense of serenity that she’d never realized music could. The notes glided by, golden as the harp, feeling very much like the streams of Viridill used to when she let them wash away the weariness in feet tired from a day of drilling. Even Zaruda stared, sightly slack-jawed, making no comment.

It ended rather suddenly, the soft arpeggios slowing and terminating in a single chord that swept all the way across the harp’s strings. For a moment, silence reigned, then the harpist drew in a soft breath and let it out in a sigh.

“Woo!” Zaruda ruined the moment by hooting and applauding; the harpist started violently, clutching her instrument, then just as quickly relaxed when she saw them in the doorway. “That’s amazing! Do you do parties?”

“I guess? Is there going to be one?” Carefully laying the harp down on her pillow, she rose, straightening her slacks, and walked over to them with a smile. “You must be the upstairs girls. I’m Teal. Teal Falconer. Let’s see…you’ve gotta be Trissiny.” She turned a warm grin on the paladin, who smiled back, then turned to Zaruda. “And… I’m sorry, I didn’t get everyone’s name yet.”

“Oh, I see how it’s gonna be. There’s a paladin on campus, so I’m gonna be upstaged everywhere.” Zaruda grinned amiably as she spoke, though, taking any bitterness out of the words, and grasped Teal’s hand, rattling off her long string of names again. Trissiny listened closely, though it might take a few more repetitions before she got them all down.

Her attention was caught, however, by a glitter of light from Teal’s lapel. Pinned to her coat was a trapezoidal silver badge carrying the emblems of the three principal gods of the Pantheon—Omnu’s sunburst, Avei’s eagle and the mask-and-scythe of Vidius—in a cartouche surmounted by the ankh symbol of the Universal Church, all inlaid in some kind of pure white metal.

“Is that—that’s a Talisman of Absolution!” she exclaimed.

“Oh…” Teal winced. “Hah, yeah…I guess you of all people would recognize that. Most folks just think it’s a decoration.”

“Then it’s authentic?”

“Well, yes. I don’t think the Church would let somebody wear a fake one around.” She laughed nervously. Trissiny was bursting with questions, but restrained herself in light of Teal’s obvious discomfort. Given what the Talisman signified, the poor girl probably had excellent reason for not wanting to talk about it. Zaruda looked back and forth between them, bemused, then cleared her throat loudly.

“Okay then! We’re headin’ down to the house meeting that’s supposed to be…I dunno, about nowish. Wanna come with?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure, I’ll just…” Teal turned to look around her messy room. “I’ll just finish this later, I guess. No sign of my roommate yet…she may as well learn up front I’m not the neatest person alive.”

Zaruda let out a boisterous guffaw and clapped Teal on the shoulder as she pulled her door shut. Trissiny only forced a smile and moved ahead to continue down the stairs, the others a step behind her. The staircase was too narrow for three to walk abreast, anyway, and not having Teal right in front of her helped her to keep a lid on her curiosity. She was going to have to get answers sooner or later, and not just out of idle nosiness. She was a paladin, a servant of Avei and by default an agent of the Church. Whatever circumstances had led to a teenage girl having a Talisman of Absolution were her business, especially if she was going to share a residence with said girl.

This time the footfalls were not so silent; a loud slapping noise accompanied each of Teal’s steps. Glancing back, Trissiny noticed for the first time that she was wearing cheap rubber sandals in a garish shade of blue. What an odd thing to pair with her obviously expensive clothes…

Occupied with her ruminations, she turned out the chitchat of the two behind her—which was mostly Zaruda, really—barely paying attention to where she put her feet, until they reached the third floor landing and met another person coming up. Trissiny had only a moment to gather an impression of slate-gray skin, white hair and elfin features before a burst of adrenaline flooded through her.

“Drow!” she shouted, whipping out her sword and falling into a ready stance. A blaze of golden light sprang up around her, filling the dim staircase with an almost physical force. Behind, Teal let out a yelp.

“Whoah, whoah, whoah! Put that thing up, you loon!” Zaruda exclaimed. “We’re not gonna be invaded here of all places. That’s another student!”

“She’s a—”

“Yeah, I can see that. Use your head, Triss, an assassin wouldn’t be strolling up the stairs like she owned the place, and if we were under attack there’d be more than one. Anyway, there’s no Underworld entrances anywhere in this province. What would a drow be doing here if she wasn’t attached to the school?”

“One of the drow city-states is allied to the Empire, y’know,” added Teal. “Can you…maybe turn that light down a little?”

“I…suppose,” Trissiny said reluctantly, lowering her sword a faction. “Is that the case?”

The dark elf had stopped at the other edge of the landing, squinting, with one hand raised to shade her eyes. She was short and slight, Trissiny saw, unlike the tall, lanky elves she’d seen before now. Odd; drow were supposed to be more muscular than their surface cousins.

“I am a student, yes.” Her voice was a cultured alto. “You may call me Shaeine. I believe this is meant to be my room?”

“Oh. I…” Trissiny swallowed, sheathing her sword. The glow faded from her; Shaeine lowered her hand and Teal breathed a faint sigh of relief. “I’m so sorry. I just…reacted. That was unforgivable of me.”

“Few humans seem so willing to express contrition.” the dark elf replied with a small, polite smile. “I have experienced numerous such misunderstandings since coming to the surface, and expect many more. May they all be so quickly resolved.”

“There, see?” Zaruda clapped her on the back, nearly earning herself a backhand from the still-twitchy paladin. “We’re all friends here. Is the sword your default reaction to everything?”

“Not everything,” Trissiny said tersely. “I’m sorry, Sheen. I’ll just get out of your way…”

“Shaeine,” she enunciated carefully, “but that was a good try.”

“Sha-ayne,” Teal said, drawing it out.

“Very good! Shorter, though. It is one vowel which changes pronunciation midway through. My language is counterintuitive to most humans, and vice versa.”

“Yeah,” said Teal, scratching her head. “There seems to be a fundamental disagreement concerning what a vowel is, for one thing.”

At this, Shaeine’s smile broadened to almost genuine proportions. “Are the three of you going to the house meeting?”

“That was the plan, yeah,” replied Zaruda, “before the littlest crusader here got all wand-happy.” Trissiny gritted her teeth, but said nothing.

“Splendid. Our remaining two housemates are already below, speaking with Miss Van Richter. As my belongings have not yet been delivered anyway, I believe I shall postpone examining my room till afterward, since everyone else is ready.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Zaruda said cheerily, then prodded Trissiny in the back. “Well, you heard the wicked child of the underworld, sparkles. We can’t walk with you in the way.”

Trissiny started moving, to get away from Zaruda if nothing else. Shaeine stepped in beside her, walking somehow even more silently than the rest of them on the thick carpet, and she fell to studying the elf sidelong. Her skin had an oddly matte texture that seemed to absorb the dim light in a way that human skin did not, but her straight white hair, which fell to her waist, was almost luminous. She wore a modest robe of green silk so dark it was almost black, trimmed in black, with patterns of spiderwebs in a different shade of black. Trissiny had never thought that black came in shades before.

Shaeine tilted her head slightly, catching her looking, and Trissiny flushed in spite of herself. “I really am sorry about that,” she said lamely.

“You are a protector, and have the instincts of such,” the elf replied smoothly with another of those purely polite smiles. “And your reflexes are certainly impressive. No harm was done.”

Nobody else found anything to say until they reached the parlor on the bottom floor. Passing through, Trissiny noticed for the first time that the staircase also continued downward from here. The tower had a basement, then? It would have to have been carved into the rock of the floating stalactite itself. Somehow, that was even more horrifying.

“Ooh, everyone’s here!” squealed Janis from near the front door, clapping her hands. “My, aren’t you girls punctual! Most years I have to go around gathering everybody up. Everyone, this is Juniper and Fross, our last two arrivals. Fross, Juniper, these are…” she pointed to each of them in turn. “Shaeine, Teal, Zaruda and Trissiny. I know, that’s not everybody’s full name, I’m sorry. But! Since we’re all here and ready, why don’t you girls each find a seat and then we’ll go about introducing ourselves! Go on, go on, get comfy! I’ll be right back with a little something to nibble.”

She bustled away down the hall to the kitchen, leaving the five girls alone. Five; to her confusion, Trissiny could only see one additional person in the room, but it was a person who made her blink to clear her vision, and then stare.

I’m Juniper,” she clarified, waving. “Good to meet everybody! Teal, wasn’t it? Looks like we’ll be sharing a room.”

Juniper looked like the kind of woman dreamed up by lonely men, then drawn and printed on the covers of the sort of tawdry magazines Trissiny wasn’t supposed to know existed. Her close-fitting, sheer dress did nothing to obscure a figure that was almost improbably curvaceous; an inch more bosom or less waist and she’d look like a caricature. Even that and her startlingly lovely face weren’t her most eye-catching features. She had long, luxurious hair of a vivid green, and skin a shade of green-tinged gold that reminded Trissiny of new leaves in the early spring. Her eyes, incongruously, were an ordinary brown.

“Well,” Zaruda said resignedly, “looks like I’m not gonna be the hot one after all.”

“Oh, uh, hi,” said Teal, who had to keep jerking her eyes back up toward Juniper’s face. “It’s, uh, good to meet you too. Wow, you’re…unusual.”

“Thanks! You have a very interesting fashion sense.” Juniper smiled earnestly at her. “Anyway, just so there’s no confusion, I think that we shouldn’t be more than friends, since we’re going to be rooming together. I don’t understand human relational politics very well yet and I’d hate to blunder into a situation where somebody’s feelings get hurt.”

“W-what?” Teal flushed scarlet, then took a step back, waving her hands in front of her. “No, no, that’s perfectly—I mean, of course, I wouldn’t…that is, I don’t…” She groaned and clapped a hand over her face. “Y’know what, I’m just gonna crawl under the rug here. Talk amongst yourselves.”

A streak of light shot past Trissiny’s face, making her jump backward, and came to a stop right in front of Shaeine, who again had to squint against the glare.

“Hi hi hi!” it chimed. “I’m Fross, I’ll be rooming with you! Good to meet you! Wow, you’re pretty. Can I touch your hair?”

“I would rather you did not.”

“Oh! Right, personal space, sorry, I forget about that.” The little ball of light fluttered backward with a faint buzzing of nearly-invisible wings. “How’s that? Better? Haven’t got a feel yet for how close is okay. Big people are all different about it and it’s tricky with me being so much smaller, y’know? But I’ll get it down! There’s a lot of rules to remember, I’m working on it.”

“You’re a fairy,” Trissiny said dumbly.

“Yup! Well, we’re both fairies, but I’m a pixie.”

“Great seas, you’re tiny,” Zaruda said in awe. “Why’s a pixie need a room? Wouldn’t you be fine with, like, a lily pad?”

Fross seemed confused by the question; she drifted sideways in midair, as though her concentration on her flight had slipped. “Students are supposed to have rooms. All students are required to live on-campus, and the University provides housing. It’s in the student handbook.”

“You’ve read that? Mine’s propping up an uneven chair back home.”

“Of course I read it! All the rules are in there! How are you supposed to know the rules if you don’t read it?”

“Easy, Fross,” Juniper soothed, but the pixie began bouncing up and down in agitation, her voice growing shriller and more rapid with each word.

“What’s the point of having rules if people aren’t even going to know them? I’m still trying to wrap my feelers around the whole business and I can’t be the only responsible person here and please tell me I’m not the only one who read the handbook!”

“I read it!” four voices immediately piped up.

Fross visibly calmed, her flight steadying. “Oh. Oh, good, okay. That’s good.” She zoomed forward directly into Zaruda’s face; the princess jerked her head back, grabbing the hilt of her sword. “It’s just you, then! Don’t worry, I’m still got my copy. We’ll go over it later and I’ll make sure you know all the rules, all right?”

“Great. Thanks. Sounds like fun.”

At that moment, Janis returned, carrying a tray laden with a full tea set as well as piles of tiny cookies and finger sandwiches. “Goodness me, are you girls all still standing around? Sit, sit, get comfortable! We’ll just go over a few important facts and then we’ll all introduce ourselves and learn a bit about each other! Won’t that be fun?”

Trissiny glanced around the room; the only comfort she found was that everyone looked as nervous and out of place as she did, with the exception of Fross, whose body language (if she even had any) was unreadable, and Shaeine, who wore serenity like a cloud of perfume. In eighteen years she’d lived with the same faces at the Abbey; new arrivals had come all the time, but there’d been plenty of time to get to know them individually, one by one, and besides, that was on her home ground where she was comfortable and knew the way of things. Here, she’d had a bunch of strangers dumped on her in a handful of minutes and would be doing well not to call any of them by each other’s names. Not to mention that her mind kept jerking back to the appalling stretch of nothing a few yards under their feet.

“Yeah,” she said weakly, edging toward a chair. “Fun.”

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1- 2

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Once again, she landed in chaos.

Trissiny’s mental picture of a frontier town admittedly came from comics and cheap novels (what few had slipped past the Abbey’s defenses); she should hardly have been surprised to find that Last Rock was not a single dusty street lined with wooden buildings. Cobblestone streets fanned out from the Rail platform, framing solid and quite elegant structures of well-dressed stone that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medieval village. Really, that only made sense, positioned as the town was at the base of a mountain with no trees in sight.

She barely had a chance to appreciate the town, however, as a roar of pandemonium went up as soon as she stepped off the caravan. The streets and the edges of the platform were thronged with townsfolk apparently in their churchday best, cheering and applauding as though greeting victorious soldiers just back from the trenches. Somewhere nearby, barely visible through gaps in the crowd, an enthusiastic but clearly unpracticed brass band struck up a sprightly tune. Colorful streamers and buntings were draped everywhere, wreaths hung from darkened streetlamps, and strung across the main avenue directly ahead of her was a huge banner reading:

WELCOME, FRESHMEN!

And below that, a slightly larger one:

WELCOME BACK, ASSHOLES!

That was…troubling.

Before she’d decided how to react to all this, a door was flung open two cars behind her and a boy came staggering out. Trissiny gathered only an impression of dark, tousled hair and a long black coat before he stumbled to his knees and was loudly, violently sick. At this, the cheering on all sides intensified and a few catcalls rang out.

She scowled, letting go of her trunk and turning toward the poor boy. Riding the Rails the first time without the benefit of a lot of physical training must have been a nightmarish experience; even she would have come out of the Belt bruised at the least if not for Mr. Paxton’s warnings. And it was not right for people to treat someone’s misfortunes as entertainment.

A second young man, casually dressed and with a very dark complexion, had emerged from the same car and now knelt by his fallen companion, ignoring the crowd. Trissiny hesitated; if it were herself, she’d rather people gave her space and didn’t acknowledge her discomfort so publicly, but that was just her. Besides, Avei expected her to render aid wherever it was needed, and though she wasn’t a healer by calling, just channeling raw holy power at someone would soothe a lot of ailments.

“You there! You, girl, in the armor!”

Warily, she twisted back the other way, in time to see an old woman in a black gown nearly a century out of fashion swat a grinning boy of about twelve out of the way with one of the two canes on which she dragged herself along.

“You’re that paladin, right?” The old woman grinned broadly, and Trissiny forced herself not to flinch; her teeth, those that remained, were as brown as old wood. “Paladin of Avei. Finally the gods are sending us a message again, yeah? Finally the paladins are coming back, and they’re both coming here! That’s you, right?”

“I am a Hand of Avei,” Trissiny said carefully, having to pitch her voice a little louder than she liked to be audible over the crowd. Several of the closest bystanders immediately cheered even more loudly at her; nobody offered up any of the rude commentary they’d thrown at the boy who’d lost his lunch. She glanced over at him; he was standing, weakly, with his friend’s arm about his shoulders, and the pair were being pressed in upon by several of the locals carrying small trays. More detail than that she didn’t manage to catch before the old woman in front of her let out a loud crow like a cockerel.

“I knew it!” she chortled, thumping one of her canes against the stone platform. “It’s about time, is all! Yes, time for the gods to send someone to straighten out that nest of iniquity and vice up there on the hill. Elves and wizards and perverts, the lot of ’em! You’ll fix ’em good, won’t ya, paladin? Eh?”

“Ah…” Trissiny glanced around again. Over a dozen pairs of eager eyes were upon her; she was surrounded by grins. By all the Pantheon, did these people think this was street theater?

“Oh, Mabel, give the poor girl a moment to get her boots on the ground before you start preaching,” said a new voice in a throaty purr that really seemed too soft to carry as well as it did over the noise. Trissiny spun again and found herself almost nose-to-nose with a strikingly pretty black-haired woman. Only as an afterthought did she realize it was an elf.

Dark hair was supposed to be rare among the elvish tribes, so she’d heard. Trissiny had rarely met elves and never been this close to one; the differences from humans weren’t so glaring. This woman was of slender build, but not abnormally so; her eyes were on the large side and her features rather pointed, but not enough to seem out of place on a human face. Trissiny herself had some of those traits. Only the long, tapered ears poking up through her hair marked the elf for certain.

“Hussy!” screeched the old woman, clobbering the elf with a cane, to no effect. Apparently there wasn’t much strength in those bony arms. “Freak! Harlot! Painted trollop! I know what you get up to, over in the taverns! Sub-human thing from Elilial’s bosom! You get away from that girl. She’s a good girl, she is! And you!” Trissiny jerked back as a cane was pointed directly into her face. “You smite this heathen slattern! She’s of the Black Lady’s own stock, she is! Do yer duty, girl!”

“I see you’ve met my fan club,” said the elf airily, ignoring repeated blows from the cane. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you at last, Trissiny. Welcome to Last Rock. I have something here I think you’ll like.” Smiling disarmingly, she produced a small, flattish wooden box from within her coat and opened it; a golden pendant formed in the eagle symbol of Avei rested upon black velvet within.

“Do I know you?” Trissiny asked loudly, resisting the urge to grip her sword. Symbol of her faith or no, something about this woman set her on edge; she smiled the way that oily man who sold the Abbey produce did. Mother Narny had to supervise him very closely.

“I know you, my dear, which will do for a start. Everyone knows about the new paladins joining the student body this year. I’m just a simple enchanter and purveyor of magical trinkets, and purely honored to make your acquaintance. I’d like you to have this as a gift, from me, at no charge.” Smiling broadly, she pressed the box forward again, then had to jerk it back as the crone tried to swat it out of her hands.

CRACK!

Even the band faltered. Townspeople who’d been pressing ever closer to her scuttled back, revealing a man in denim and flannel, with a wand pointed skyward and a silver gryphon pinned to his shirt. In the confusion she hadn’t even seen the lightning bolt, but the tip of his wand still smoked faintly.

“Okay, folks, that’ll do. Show’s over. Let’s all take a step back before I have to feel disappointed in somebody.”

“Sheriff,” Trissiny said desperately, cocking a head at her two admirers. Tugging the broad brim of his hat to her, he ambled over.

“Omnu’s breath, you two, were you raised in a barn? Do we have to go through this every year?”

“I was raised in a tree,” said the elf with a grin. “And unless it’s suddenly illegal to talk to paladins, nobody’s doing anything wrong here. Ms. Avelea, here. Please take this.”

“Don’t you pull that attitude on me, master Samuel Sanders!” squawked the old woman, brandishing a cane. “Just because you’ve got a big fancy badge now doesn’t mean you don’t have to respect your elders! And taking a god’s name in vain, for shame! I know your poor mother, Omnu rest her soul, raised you better than that.”

“Well, you’ve caught me dead to rights, Miz Cratchley,” the sheriff said easily. “It’d serve me right if you went and wrote a letter to the editor about my deplorable behavior right this minute.”

“You see if I don’t, you young hellion!” She waved the cane at him once more, then began the complicated process of turning around and ambling off, still shrilly complaining. “Young people these days. No respect. None! In my day, we knew how to pay respect to the gods, yes sir. And to our elders!”

“Welp, that takes care of the one I’d feel bad about shootin’.” He raised an eyebrow at the elf, who fluttered her eyelashes at him.

“All right, all right, keep it in your pants, Sam. Trissiny, if you’d just—”

“No, thank you,” she said firmly. “I don’t need jewelry. Of any kind.”

“Oh, but I know what a young adventurer needs! Trust me, I deal only in the most magical of—”

“That will do, Sippy,” said the Sheriff, all humor gone from his voice. “She’ll be here all year. You can bide your time and make a pest of yourself when the poor girl’s had a chance to settle in. Move along.”

The elf closed her box with a loud snap. For just a moment she glared daggers at Sanders, then turned an amiable grin on Trissiny. “Well, the man’s not wrong. It’s wonderful to have you in town, Trissiny. I look forward to seeing you again.” Bowing, she backed away into the crowd.

“Thank you,” she said with feeling. The sheriff smiled at her.

“Not at all, ma’am, that’s why they pay me the big bucks. Can I offer you an escort past the town?”

“I appreciate your help,” she said a little stiffly, “but I don’t require any man’s protection.”

“I am well aware that you don’t, miss, but there’s more to life than what a body requires. I thought you might like a little protection anyway. See that?” He cocked a finger at the crowd where the two boys had been moments ago. There was no sign of them now; apparently they’d managed to escape. In their place stood half a dozen well-dressed people carrying trays of snacks, toys and baubles, all eying her hungrily. “My beloved constituency. Good folks, as a rule, but you should know up front that they view you and the rest of the students as walking coin purses. They’ll leave you alone if you’re with me, but if you’d rather not…” He shrugged. “You can always beat ’em back with your sword, I guess, but the we’ll have to have an entirely different kind of conversation.”

Abruptly, the fine hairs along Trissiny’s arms stood on end; her scalp tingled distractingly. Then, with an earsplitting crack of arcane energy, the caravan behind her began moving. Its acceleration was a frightening thing to behold; it was over the horizon in seconds. How had she survived riding that wretched thing? How did anyone?

“When you put it that way,” she said carefully, bending to grasp the handle of her trunk, “I think I would appreciate an escort.”

“I live to serve. Shall we?”

He was as good as his word. The cheering had begun to fade as soon as the caravan departed, people drifting away to tend to their own business; though she remained the center of attention, nobody else pressed forward or tried to intercept her with the Sheriff by her side. He led her at an easy pace away from the Rail platform and down what appeared to be the main avenue of the tiny town.

“Is it like this every year?” she asked cautiously. Stands and stalls, most looking rather cobbled-together, occupied the edges of the street, displaying a wide variety of goods and obstructing the actual storefronts. Bright banners, pennants and bunting were hung everywhere, including several with text welcoming the students to Last Rock. None after the big one across the road referred to them as assholes, which was a positive sign.

“We’re a college town,” he said with an amiable grin. “Last Rock is probably the most cosmopolitan village of its size in the whole Empire. We’ve got entertainment and specialty goods such as you’d expect to see in the capital itself, including more taverns than we need. Students bring money from all over the place, and the population has mostly adjusted to suit their needs. Pretty open-minded folks, as a rule, at least compared to most frontier stock, despite a few holdouts like Miz Cratchley. Of course, the downside of being so dependent on the University is the summers around here are a dry season, and I don’t just mean the weather. So yeah, the kids coming back is a pretty big deal.”

“I don’t have much in the way of spending money,” she said carefully. “Or want any. My needs are few.”

He nodded. “I can spread that around, if you’d like. Might spare you a certain amount of harassment next time you visit.”

“Is there much trouble between townspeople and students?”

“Oh, rarely. You can’t have those two groups in one spot without some butting of heads, but Professor Tellwyrn’s a good neighbor. You cause trouble in my town and I’ll have to wait for her to finish scraping and smoking your hide for embarrassing her University before I even get to toss you in a cell. Not exactly a boon to my manhood, but I can’t argue with the results.”

“I have no intention of causing any trouble,” she said frostily.

“My apologies, ma’am, didn’t mean to imply that. It was a general ‘you.’ I end up having to have this talk with most of the kids at one point or another; force of habit. And to speak the plan truth, it’s not you I’m worried about. It was a right breath of fresh air to learn we’d be getting two paladins this year. Actually…if I’m not mistaken, Principia was actually trying to give you something, which is downright weird; usually when she’s around it’s wise to keep a hand on your wallet. I guess everybody loves a paladin.”

“Hm.” She didn’t know what to say to that. Trissiny hadn’t been offered much detail on the other students, but she had been told there was a Hand of Omnu her own age who’d be starting school alongside her. Hopefully they could compare notes. But it was hard to know what was expected of her, here. The citizens of Last Rock clearly saw her as a person of action, much as she wanted to see herself, but Avei seemed to have different plans. Why else would she be here and not someplace like Sarasio, where a sword of the Goddess would actually be useful?

“And this is as far as my authority extends,” he announced, coming to a halt. Indeed, they had reached the edge of the town; directly ahead, even with the walls of the last buildings, the cobbled street abruptly became stairs of white marble, which marched the entire way up the mountain. Above, the University loomed, offering her only a vague impression of towers and walls from this angle. She could also see two dark figures who had to be those boys from her caravan, climbing the stone stairs.

It was an awe-inspiring sight, especially compared to the gray stone of the town and the rusty gold plains that stretched in every direction. The grass climbing the slope was lushly green, and the marble steps almost blinding under the bright sun. She saw, now, that in addition to the stairs marching directly upward, a broad, flatter path zigzagged back and forth all the way to the University, probably for wheeled conveyances that couldn’t navigate the stairs. It had a much gentler slope, obviously, and would be easier in terms of pulling her trunk…but it’d also take about ten times as long. This was going to be quite the hike, whichever path she chose.

“Thank you, Sheriff, for everything.”

“My pleasure, Ms. Avelea. And please, it’s Sam, so long as you’re on my good side.” He winked. “Welcome to Last Rock. I truly hope you enjoy your stay.” With one more tip of his hat, he turned and strolled back into his town, leaving her to face the rest of her journey alone.

Trissiny drew a deep breath, tightened her grip on her trunk, and started up the steps. The sturdy wheels were big enough to climb each step without too much banging, but the repeated bumps quickly began to jar her arm even worse than sword practice. Well, back home, she started her day with a run up and down the steep hills of Viridill, in full armor, on ancient stone steps far more treacherous than these. Granted, the sun at home was never quite this oppressively hot, but Trissiny wasn’t about to admit defeat this early in her journey.

She glanced back. About…twenty feet up. Gritting her teeth, she focused on her breathing, on the mechanical motions of her legs. One step at a time.

Fifteen minutes later, Trissiny had developed a theory that between the Rail rides and this infernal staircase, Professor Tellwyrn was attempting to weed out the weak and unworthy from even approaching her precious University. She was in excellent physical shape and bore the strain of the climb without complaint, though her arm was already aching something fierce. She considered switching the trunk to her other side, but instinct compelled her to keep her sword arm limber and free. The heat was worse than the exercise, really. Those poor boys…she was pretty sure one had been in a long black coat. There was no sign of them ahead now.

A thin, reedy sound of music had begun to grow as she’d climbed, becoming more and more distinct with each step. The tune was a cheerful one she didn’t recognize; it helped, a bit, in distracting her from the rigors of the climb. Now, as she finally approached the gates of the University itself, she discovered the source.

Though the dark stone walls weren’t battlemented, she was impressed by their height. This was clearly a defensible structure. There was only one gate, positioned in the center of the slope and with the broad marble steps leading directly to it; a small plaza had been carved from the mountain and paved in matching white marble to accommodate the two huge, iron-bound wooden gates, which presently stood open. An arch of decorative wrought metal spanned the gap between them, and upon this perched what she assumed was a student, playing an ocarina.

He had thick, black hair tied back in a long tail, and the mahogany complexion common in the western provinces. All he wore were loose canvas trousers and an open-fronted leather vest decorated with bits of bones and tusks. At Trissiny’s approach, he broke off his playing and grinned down at her.

“Frosh?”

“Excuse me?”

“Freshman,” he clarified.

“Um…” She’d seen that word on the banners below. Apparently it was the opposite of asshole?

“You’re a first-year student?” the young man clarified further, his grin broadening. It was a friendly expression, though; she didn’t feel mocked or belittled.

“Oh! Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Welcome to the University!” He had a deep voice, and sounded like he was laughing even when he merely spoke. “You’ll like it here. Probably. At the very least you won’t be bored. This year’s freshman girls are living in Clarke Tower. Just follow the blue flags along the path, and you’ll head right there. And don’t worry, it hardly ever falls.”

With that and a final grin, he lifted the ocarina back to his lips and resumed playing.

“Oh. Uh, thank you,” she said weakly. He didn’t stop, but blew a high trill, wiggling his fingers at her, and winked. Trissiny ducked her head and strode forward, passing under him and into the University itself.

Three paths branched off from the gates; a wide one that seemed to continue directly on from the stairs, and one meandering away to each side. The path on her left was marked with a small blue pennant. Drawing closer, she noted that the slim pole to which it was tied was not stuck in the ground; it floated, immobile, about a foot off the grass. Opposite that, a red one hovered by the other side. She drew another deep breath and set off down the marked path.

Here, the slope of the mountain had been re-shaped into terraces, and Trissiny’s route, marked with more floating blue flags every few feet, took her along a meandering course down broad thoroughfares, through narrow alleys and across a few patches of open lawn. There was an amazing variety of scenery, and Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that the path she was directed to take was designed to show off the campus rather than get her anywhere efficiently. Not that it wasn’t pretty, or that she wouldn’t appreciate knowing where things were, but after her hike up the mountain she didn’t enjoy it as much as she otherwise might.

The University made the best possible use of the space available to it. Many of the walled terraces had doors leading into subterranean chambers, and the stepped architecture meant there was shade everywhere. There were plants in every available space; shrubs, flowers, vines climbing stone walls and even several trees, where room existed for them to grow. Three levels up from the gates she passed along the edge of a broad, flat area carpeted with lush grass, with a gazebo near the front, perched on the edge of the terrace.

She passed few other people, all of them clearly students. Some nodded or called out greetings, which she returned politely, and all gave her long considering looks; nobody offered to engage her in conversation, for which Trissiny was actually grateful. She wanted to get settled in before having to deal with any more people, especially if they were all going to be as weird as those she’d already met in the town. Humans predominated the student body, what little she saw of it, but there were a handful of elves as well, and she actually spotted two dwarves, both women. On the flat lawn by the gazebo, a lizardfolk person in a nice suit fenced with a human girl, the clash of blades intermingling with cheerful taunts and laughter in a way that made her homesick for the Abbey and her sisters-in-training.

Eventually her path brought her to the very edge of the mountain, and a nasty surprise.

A wall surrounded the perimeter of the University, where buildings weren’t perched right on the edge, to keep people from accidentally wandering off the cliff. The blue flags led Trissiny directly to a gate in this wall, which opened onto a stone footbridge bordered by tall iron railings; a plaque right by the gate proclaimed this the way to Clarke Tower. She had to stop at the foot of the bridge and stare in horror.

The bridge was gently arched and about thirty feet long, and terminated at the top of a colossal stalactite at least four stories tall. It tapered to a jagged point aiming downward, and had a flat top upon which was built a thick round tower with a conical roof that had a huge clock face inset. And the whole island just…floated in midair, above a nauseating drop to the prairie far below.

Hesitantly, she crept across the bridge. It certainly felt solid. In her rational mind, Trissiny knew this all had to be perfectly fine. This was a University run by the most famous former adventurer still living, a woman who was a formidable wizard in her own right. Magic was ancient and well-understood. Furthermore, they wouldn’t have built a building on this and housed students in it if it weren’t entirely safe.

But all that was merely cognitive. She was stepping on a thin bridge to an island in the sky on which they apparently expected her to sleep. In her heart of hearts, Trissiny knew she was about to plunge to her horrible death.

Only by keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the door to Clarke Tower did she make it across the bridge, and that despite the strong breeze that seemed to perpetually flow across it. The door was actually quite lovely, made of old iron-bound wood with stained glass panels inset. Coming to a stop before it, she had to pause and take a few deep breaths. This was good; nothing in her vision but the door and stonework. She could almost forget she was standing on ground that was floating on nothing.

Trissiny decided she was beginning to hate this place.

She raised her hand to knock, then shook her head. If they expected her to live here, she wasn’t going to mince around. Grasping the handle, she pulled the door open and dragged her trunk inside.

“Oh! Hi there!”

Blinking, she surveyed her new surroundings. It was a comfortably furnished living room lined with overstuffed chairs surrounding a coffee table, with a battered couch along one wall; a grandfather clock ticked away in one corner. There were no windows, Avei be praised.

Upon her entrance, a woman rose quickly from one of the chairs and bustled toward her, beaming. She was a head shorter than Trissiny and at least twice as broad, her plump frame squeezed into a very fancy corseted gown of black and purple silk that displayed a dizzying expanse of cleavage. She wore a heavy layer of makeup that made her lips and eyes seem almost to pop off her rouged face; Trissiny was aware of cosmetics in theory but had seldom seen them used, and couldn’t help staring. Waves of glossy ebon hair were wound around her head in an elaborate bun, decorated with sprays of purple feathers.

“And you must be Trissiny!” the woman gushed. “Oh, it’s so good to meet you at last! Imagine, a paladin staying under my roof. Arach—that is, Professor Tellwyrn’s told me all about you. You’re one of the first to arrive, dear.”

“Uh. Thank you?”

“I’m Janis Van Richter, the house mother. Please, just call me Jan! I’m here to look after the place and you girls, make sure everyone’s comfy and right at home. Any problems you have, just come to me and we’ll get it all sorted, okay? Oooh, this is going to be such a good year! C’mon, I’ve put you in the upper room, so let’s not waste any time getting you settled in.”

Janis seized Trissiny’s free hand in both of her own—they were plump and bedecked with far too many rings—and beamed up at her.

“Welcome to the University, Trissiny. Welcome to Clarke Tower. Welcome home!”

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