Tag Archives: Jebediah Jenkins

14 – 6

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“As promised.”

Yasmeen handed her the object, a shaft of metal no longer than Trissiny’s index finger. She accepted it almost gingerly, immediately holding it up to the intermittent light passing through the windows of the carriage. If the vehicle had interior fairy lamps, they were dormant, leaving only the shifting glow of the city to illuminate them. In a way, that helped prove the composition of the key fragment. Under full sunlight, the blade of Ruda’s sword might pass for steel, but in dimmer and especially moving light, it caught and refracted illumination in a way that both emphasized its paler color and made it almost resemble a jewel. This piece had the same quality. She lightly probed at its indentations with a fingertip; they matched the illustration in the book. Had she stumbled upon this thing without context, Trissiny doubted she would have interpreted its shape as part of a key, but knowing the fact made the arrangement obvious.

“I had the royal jeweler extract it from its setting,” Yasmeen continued while she studied Gretchen’s Dowry—or what was left of it. “I honestly thought the poor man was going to burst into tears.”

“I hope this won’t get you into trouble with your mother,” Trissiny murmured.

“Oh, nonsense, you don’t think I’m keeping this from her, do you?” Yasmeen snorted in a distinctly un-royal manner, and Trissiny had the sudden thought that between her and Ruda she had no evidence that the snooty stereotype of princesses actually existed outside of books. “Believe me, the Sultana of Calderaas is always pleased to assist the Hand of Avei in a quest, and while tonight’s main event was my idea, I wouldn’t dare set something like that into motion without Mother’s approval. She regrets not being able to present her compliments in person, but House Aldarasi’s involvement in all of this must remain a secret, or there’ll be real trouble from the Houses represented in that party you just crashed. Speaking of which…”

“I’m sorry, what?” Trissiny glanced up at her. “Who are you? How’d you get in this carriage?”

“The Sultanate appreciates your discretion,” Yasmeen said primly.

“In seriousness, though, does your mother know that you came to supervise this personally?”

“Ah, well.” The princess turned to face forward, folding her hands demurely in her lap, but ruined the effect by giving Trissiny a sidelong look accompanied by a sly little smile. “Mother can’t be expected to know everything. Ruling a country is complicated business, after all.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling.”

The princess had arranged two carriages with drivers; Trissiny did not quite follow her assertion that this would be more discreet than piling everyone into a larger, more luxurious model, but had been too distracted by her thoughts to make an issue of it.

“You seem unhappy.”

She glanced up to find Yasmeen looking at her now, her expression open and even. Trissiny closed her fist around the fragment of mithril; she hadn’t handled it long, but it didn’t seem to have picked up any heat from her hand.

“I understand the necessity of what happened back there, or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate. But I think something would have to be very wrong with me if I came away feeling good about it. I just beat and tormented a woman who was no physical threat to me, at all. Do you really think Lady Araadia deserved that treatment?”

“Wrong question,” Yasmeen murmured in a pensive tone which took any rebuke out of the statement. “Whether she did or not, summarily assaulting someone isn’t justice. If I know my Avenists, that’s the thing that sits most poorly with you.”

“Good insight.”

The princess nodded. “No, frankly, I don’t think she did. Irina Araadia is a splendidly useless creature as only a noble can be, but she wasn’t by a wide margin the most corrupt person even in that room. While her little museum scheme is surely one of the more asinine manifestations of the problems in Calderaas, it certainly was not among the most abusive. The point was to remind an entire stratum of society that there are limits, and beyond them, consequences. Yours was merely the ugly part; Toby’s role was equally important, and there will come more maneuvering by my mother and the cults in the days ahead to encourage the Houses to act rightly, using more…positive methods. A jolt of fear to shake their arrogance is but one tactic in a larger strategy.” She shifted her head to gaze aimlessly out the window at the passing city scenery. “In that, Irina was a sacrificial lamb. The greater good always leaves victims, by definition. Otherwise it would just be the good.”

“You sound almost Eserite,” Trissiny said with a sigh of her own. “I went to the Guild to learn how to plot my way around confrontation, the way the Wreath has done to me a few times. What they mostly taught me was how to be creatively cruel and terrorize people into compliance.”

“Good,” Yasmeen said firmly. “The more you can frighten someone into obeying, the less you’ll have to hurt them.”

“You don’t find that attitude just a little horrifying?”

“Yes, but it’s the basis of all criminal justice. Almost every aspect of rulership is a little horrifying, that’s just how societies work. Someone has to do some brutal jobs so that the majority of people can go about their lives in peace. You are, unfortunately, one of those specialists. As long as you do your job only when it’s needed and don’t try to run a whole society that way, all will be well. Let me ask you this, Trissiny.” Yasmeen shifted toward her almost fully on the seat, folding one of her legs across it between them. “How familiar are you with the history of paladins?”

Trissiny opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated. “Well. That was a major emphasis of my early education, but not so long ago an Eserite courtesan of all people pointed out a few massive blind spots in it. What did you have in mind, specifically?”

“I had a feeling,” Yasmeen said, nodding. “We have a bit of the same issue here. With all the Avenist influence, the history most people learn is just a tad romanticized—and the Church pushing a narrative of a united Pantheon exacerbates it. At this point you have to go to the Veskers or Nemitites to learn how paladins historically related to each other. Which is to say, like strange cats, most of the time.”

“Really?” Trissiny’s eyebrows involuntarily shot upward. “All right, you got me. That I wasn’t taught. I mean, there have been scuffles between paladins in all the great adventure stories, but…”

“But they were presented as passing misunderstandings?” Yasmeen shook her head, smiling ruefully. “There’s a reason an episode like that happens in almost all the great epics. Hands of Avei and Sorash considered each other worse than demons. Hands of Omnu firmly disapproved of just about everything every other paladin did, and most of Toby’s predecessors did not share his reluctance to assert himself. Hands of Salyrene were only intermittently useful to the cause of protecting humanity; their goddess was just as interested in advancing knowledge through experimentation, and quite a few of her Hands got up to things that resulted in other paladins putting them down. Magnan the Enchanter took it to a new extreme, but he was treading a well-worn path. There is an entire theological school of thought, which has fallen out of the public eye only in the last century, that the whole purpose of gods calling paladins was to fight with each other without using their full power and thus devastating the world the way the Elder Gods did.”

“Why does everyone know more about the history of my lineage than I do?” Trissiny complained.

Yasmeen laughed, reaching over to squeeze her upper arm below the silver pauldron. “Oh, I assure you, everyone does not. Like I said, the Church has gone to great lengths to encourage the view you were taught; not everybody has access to royal archives and a fondness for old adventure sagas. But I wasn’t changing the subject, Trissiny. Remember that I didn’t just ask you to barge into that party and slap Irina around; I asked all three of you to intervene, and in specifically different ways. Toby to appeal to their better nature, you to impose order, Gabriel to project chilling eldritch menace. You see the hierarchy, there?”

“Velvet mentioned the same thing,” Trissiny acknowledged. “Toby’s part, anyway. Maybe some of those people will be more receptive next time an Omnist politely asks them to consider others.”

“Oh, I guarantee they will,” Yasmeen assured her. “And not just because they don’t want to meet your fist, or even because they don’t want to find out what else that scythe can do. House Araadia is going to take a long time to recover from this setback, but every other House represented at tonight’s gala is, I promise you, already planning how to take advantage of this. Most will reach out to the Sisterhood directly; I expect your Silver Missions will find themselves most generously funded in the days to come. If you stay in one place and make yourself accessible, aristocrats will begin trying to court you—in some cases, quite literally.”

“What kind of person flirts with their own natural predators?” Trissiny demanded in exasperation.

“Nobles,” Yasmeen answered immediately. “That’s what we do, Trissiny. It’s what we are. Nobles are predatory toward each other to a truly insane degree; we expect nothing less, from anyone. Nobody takes it personally. Well, Irina will after the way you lit into her, but the rest? You didn’t damage them directly, so the question is not how they will stop you, but how they can use you. That is why it was so important to present yourself as a force of nature beyond their control, not a rival for power. Otherwise, anything you did to any of them would have been business as usual.”

Trissiny could find no immediate answer for that, and Yasmeen heaved a deep sigh, her gaze growing unfocused.

“That’s the thing, you see. The best thing that ever happened to me was getting out of my palace, going to Last Rock and spending time with peasants, oddballs, and people from all walks of life. The most important thing I learned from interacting with them is that they all want the same things I do. Growing up rich and in control, it’s so easy to assume that poor people are…lesser. Lazy, selfish, somehow to blame for their situation. But people are just people. And even at their most venal, the basic drives that motivate them ensure that most people, most of the time, do the right thing. People want to contribute, to belong, to feel and to be valuable, to be part of something greater than themselves. No end of trouble results from people misunderstanding or disagreeing on what is the right thing to do, but in the end? We all want what’s best, as best we understand it.”

Slowly, she shifted back to face forward, still perched in that awkward way half-on the seat. Her gaze had become distant; Trissiny wasn’t sure whether Yasmeen was still talking to her, or arguing with herself.

“The two exceptions are despair, and power. People who are so ground down that they have no hope stop bothering with anything that could give meaning to their lives. And people who have power…” Her whole expression tightened unhappily. “Power distorts the mind like nothing else. It becomes the end and the means, the only thing you think about or care about. Most people will do right because with a modicum of intelligence, self-interest is at least somewhat altruistic. The powerful only do right when they are afraid to do otherwise. And powerful people are the leading cause of populations falling into despair. So, yes.” She turned back to face Trissiny, her eyes coming back into focus and glinting in the dimness. “You’d better believe I am comfortable unleashing whatever monster I can catch against the powerful. That’s what constitutes working with them.”

“And then,” Trissiny said quietly, “there’s us, who can do a thing like we just did and then flitter off into the night without consequence. What does that say about us?”

Yasmeen expelled a soft breath that might have been a sigh, though she smiled thinly at the same time. “It says we are walking a very narrow path, and had best watch where we step.”

“You are a puzzle,” Trissiny said frankly. “You seem downright happy-go-lucky most of the time. But the way you talk about the responsibilities of your position, you make it sound so grim. Which one is the act?”

“Oh, Trissiny.” Yasmeen eased closer and placed an elbow on the back of the seat, to lean her cheek into her hand and give Trissiny a fondly chiding look. “Any Vidian can tell you that the secret to acting is not to act, but to believe.”

“That’s a deflection if I ever heard one.”

“Not at all, it’s an explanation.” Casually, she reached out to brush back a blonde lock which had come loose from Trissiny’s braid, and only her practice with the Guild on not giving away every little thought prevented her from stiffening up. Surely the princess didn’t… “Life is grim, if it’s nothing but responsibility. Taking time for oneself can feel like selfishness, to the conscientious person, but in truth a little maintenance for the mind and spirit is necessary.”

“Now it sounds like you’re describing prayer. Or exercise.”

“Both good approaches,” Yasmeen agreed readily. “It depends on the individual. It’s an absolute necessity to find moments of joy, whatever form they may take for you.” Idly, she shifted her hand again, lightly brushing the back of her fingers along Trissiny’s cheekbone, while very slowly but inexorably leaning closer. “We serve no one by falling into grim despair, my dear. We must take whatever pleasure we can from life. With whoever will share it, for however long the opportunity lasts. After all…who can say what might happen tomorrow?”

Well, this explained the separate carraiges, anyway.

Carefully, Trissiny eased backward, away from those caressing fingers. “I don’t get a lot of opportunities to…share pleasure. It’s probably the armor. Only women ever seem to approach me, and I have never been even slightly attracted to my own sex.”

Yasmeen stopped, her eyes widening in open surprise. “…really? But you’re the actual Hand of Avei! Didn’t you grow up in Viridill?”

“Ooh, darling, yes,” Trissiny said, utterly deadpan. “Stereotype me. Harder, please.”

The princess stared for a shocked moment, and then burst into laughter so hard she almost doubled over. Somehow, though, she turned the movement into gracefully retreating back to her side of the seat.

“All right, point vividly made,” Yasmeen gasped once she could, brushing a tear out of her lashes. “Well! My loss, then. Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“Nothing will happen if you don’t try,” Trissiny agreed, smiling back. With the awkwardness defused, Yasmeen’s mirth was quite infectious.

“Stay reckless, Trissiny.” Just like that, though, the laughter faded from the princess’s countenance. “As long as you can be hurt, as long as you’re not too comfortable, not insulated from the consequences of your actions, you’re not turning into one of them.” She shifted to stare out at her city as they passed through it in the night. “I hope.”


“Man, what is it with you and that entire family?” Gabriel asked, shaking his head. “You’re like Aldarasi catnip.”

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Trissiny grumbled.

“You probably shouldn’t have,” he agreed. “I’m constitutionally incapable of letting it go, now.”

“Such a funny little thing, to be the focus of so much trouble,” Toby mused, studying the key fragment on his open palm. Strolling through the park under the morning sunlight as they were now, it looked like any miscellaneous piece of metal, albeit highly polished. “I’m really curious what it is this thing is supposed to unlock, when it’s restored.”

“It’ll turn out at the last minute that the real treasure was friendship or something,” Trissiny said, rolling her eyes. “Mark my words.”

“So…you’re still coming along, right?” Gabriel asked, nudging her with an elbow. “You’ve come this far with us!”

“I’m still considering that,” she hedged.

She was saved from having to go into any more detail by their arrival. The park seemed more crowded today than on her previous visit, but then, they weren’t creeping off into its most secluded corner this time. The three paladins had followed the footpath as directed to a small fountain in a little paved roundabout surrounded by benches and lamp posts, where their contacts were waiting. All were making a go at discretion, now that they’d thoroughly offended a swath of the city’s nobility. Trissiny was back in civilian clothes, her armor left in the Sultana’s palace for safekeeping—under the care of a particularly devout steward who Yasmeen said would doubtless consider the task the highlight of her life. Toby could’ve been any young Western man to someone who didn’t know his face, now that he was back in street clothes rather than formal robes, and Gabriel had taken the precaution of hiding his distinctive coat in a dimensional pocket. Ironically, he was sweating more without it; the weatherproof enchantments on traditional Punaji greatcoats were the reason sailors wore them from the equator to the arctic.

“Hey, guys!” Jeb called, waving exuberantly. “Ya made it!”

“Course they made it, ya galoot, what’d ya think was gonna happen,” Zeke said, but tipped his hat in greeting, grinning at them.

“Boys,” Trissiny said, nodding distractedly. Most of her attention was caught by the other person present.

“You wanna make a quick sketch?” Rainwood suggested dryly. “It’ll last longer.”

“Sorry,” she said automatically. “I’m just surprised by how well you clean up.”

In fact, he looked a lot like he had in her shamanic vision, though his hair was still much shorter. It was clean, now, brushed and even styled, giving him a rakish look. He also wore a green robe of supple dyed leather, ornately decorated with silver accents and beads, and carried a hardwood staff which was oiled and polished till it fairly glowed, topped with a chunk of rose quartz the size of her fist. Rather than a homeless layabout, he fully looked the part of an elvish shaman.

“A word in your ear, cousin, if I may?” Rainwood said more quietly, tilting his head pointedly to the side. Trissiny glanced at the others; Toby gave her a smile and a nod, Gabriel already in conversation with the Jenkinses.

She and Rainwood stepped a few feet away, not truly out of earshot but gaining a little privacy.

“So, have you decided on your next move?” the elf asked her.

“Not…entirely,” Trissiny admitted. “I’m leaning toward going back to the grove. This whole episode has left me feeling the need for more quiet contemplation.”

“Well…with apologies…I’m going to offer you some unsolicited advice,” he said seriously. “I know little enough of your life, Trissiny, but I’ve been around. A lot. So take it for whatever it may be worth. Go on the quest.”

She sighed. “Why?”

“If I’m not mistaken, you have an Avenist’s impatience with pursuits in which you see no practical benefit. Right?” He smiled lopsidedly.

“That’s not just an Avenist thing,” she pointed out, folding her arms. “I don’t know of anybody who enjoys wasting time with other people’s pointless nonsense.”

“Actually, lots of folks do. Anyone who would rather enjoy life than stress about meeting arbitrary goals, in fact. But that isn’t an argument I would pitch to you, of all people. Let me put it this way…” He shifted, half-turning to look out over the park, where people were walking, playing, and reading in the sunlight. “Vesk’s missions are never pointless, any more than a story is. To him, they’re one and the same. They are very literally character-building exercises. To put it in Avenist terms, training. He will break you down and build you back up, just like you would a new recruit into an army.”

“I’m not sure I trust what Vesk would want to build me into,” she retorted.

“Well, what are you?” Rainwood looked at her again, smiling faintly. “Because that’s what he’ll aim for. Think in storytelling terms, in archetypes. Are you the knight in shining armor? The thief? The orphan? The point of a hero’s journey is to bring you through the darkness and into the wisdom and greater power you earn on the other side. He’ll try to make you more of whatever it is you are.”

“That sounds…unpleasant,” she admitted.

He nodded slowly, turning his eyes back to the park. “Mm. Education is usually no fun, even when you seek it out and pay your tuition. Having it thrust upon you unsolicited is almost as enjoyable as surprise dental surgery. But the fact remains, it’s one of the best and most important things you can experience. I will say this, though, Trissiny: if you do decide to continue on, have a care. You’ve begun this journey by besting weaker foes with scornful ease. If this were a story, that would mean you have a real test coming down the line. And if you’re working for Vesk, it’s always a story.”

“No.” She shook her head slowly, also gazing out across the park now, even as Rainwood turned to look at her in mild surprise. “That wasn’t the test, or the lesson. Those simpering nobles were never the enemy. I was. I…don’t think I won that battle.”

He reached up to squeeze her shoulder. “Yeah. You’ll do just fine, kiddo. All right, now I’ve gotta be moving along myself.” The shaman hiked up his staff, leaning it over his shoulder, and turned to amble back toward the group, Trissiny following along. “As I mentioned before, I have my own quest. The spirits are guiding me westward, where my help is needed.”

“By whom?” Toby asked, turning to him.

Rainwood grinned and shrugged. “No idea! That’s the fun of both shamanism and adventure: you figure it out as you go.”

“Well…uh, nice meeting you, then,” said Gabriel.

“I’ve got a funny feeling our paths haven’t crossed for the last time,” Rainwood replied, winking. He patted Trissiny on the upper back. “But who knows? We’ll all find out what’s in the future when we get there. Till then.”

It was the strangest thing to observe; he didn’t seem to transform, exactly, but one moment he was an elf and then he wasn’t, and it was as if he never had been and they’d only just noticed. Trissiny recalled Kuriwa doing very much the same thing. Jeb let out a muffled exclamation of surprise, which the little black cat ignored, trotting away across the park. They all stared after him until he ducked under a bush and was gone from sight.

“That was one weird dude,” Zeke observed. “Paid well, though.”

“You’ve got interesting relatives, Triss,” said Gabe.

She sighed. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“So!” Jeb grinned broadly at them. “Where y’all off to next, then?”

“I think you boys mentioned you were between steady jobs at the moment,” Trissiny said. “And that you came from a ranch originally. Right?”

“Hey, you remembered!” Jeb said cheerfully. “See, Zeke, I told you she was nice! Pays attention to us little folk an’ everything.”

“I never said she wasn’t nice, Jeb,” Zeke said quickly, glancing at Trissiny. “I said she has more important stuff to do than worry about the likes a’ you an’ me. Which was true.”

Trissiny opted not to weigh in on that. Instead, ignoring Gabriel’s snickering, she reached into her coat and carefully extracted the sealed letter she had stashed there, holding it out to Zeke. “Right. Well, you did help me, in the end, and I didn’t want to just cut you loose and vanish—”

“All right!” Jeb whooped, actually jumping into the air and pumping a fist skyward. “You just say the word, boss lady! We’re off ta kick ass and praise Avei!”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned back to his brother. “…so I wrote you a letter of recommendation. If you decide you’ve had enough of Calderaas, charter a Rail caravan to Last Rock and give this to Mr. Ryan Cartwright. He owns most of the horses along that stretch of frontier; anybody in town can direct you to him. Gabe and I worked for him last year, and he liked us both well enough I’m confident my recommendation will get you a job.”

Jeb had fallen still, frowning at her in consternation. Zeke slowly reached up to accept the envelope, also looking puzzled. “Uh, maybe it’s none o’ my business, ma’am, but why was a couple’a paladins workin’ as ranch hands?”

“Punishment duty,” Gabriel explained, grinning. “One of the options Tellwyrn gave us was jobs in town with wages transferred to the University. We both went for that one, since it involved the greatest distance from her squawking.”

“Last Rock is a tiny town,” Trissiny continued, “but it’s not a boring one. You’ll meet all kinds of people. Especially girls,” she added, giving Jeb a pointed look. “The sort you like, with backbones and no patience for your crap, Jeb. Townies, passing adventurers, University students. If you get tired of trying your luck in the city, it’s an option, anyway.”

“Girls?” Toby’s eyebrows had risen so high it almost looked painful. “Trissiny, you’re helping them get dates?”

“Uh…how certain are we that this is really Trissiny?” Gabriel muttered out the corner of his mouth, sidling closer to him.

“Her aura is unmistakable,” Ariel replied, making Jeb jump and look around for the source of her voice.

“That’s…real thoughtful of you, ma’am,” said Ezekiel slowly. “I appreciate the gesture. You don’t owe us nothin’, though. It was a plumb honor to help out a little.”

“I thought we might could come with you!” Jeb burst out, suddenly giving up searching for the voice and turning to her, hat in hand and being roughly squeezed the way he did when nervous. Zeke sighed, but his brother continued on, undaunted. “Cos, y’know, you’re sorta right, Calderaas ain’t been that great for us. But, come on, what’re the odds a’ two guys like us meetin’ a paladin? Twice? Maw always said, the gods move in mysterious ways. We can both ride an’ shoot and we ain’t afraid o’ hard work!”

“Good,” she said firmly. “Those are traits you’ll need on Cartwright’s ranch.”

“Yeah, but—”

“People like you get killed for following people like me!” she snapped. “Ignore anything Rainwood told you about adventure, Jenkins. That stuff’s for storybooks. My life is violence, destruction, and being manipulated into one disaster after another. Do you understand? You will die, and I don’t need to see that happen.”

“Well…shit, Ms. Trissiny, everybody dies a’ somethin’,” Jeb said earnestly. “Our great uncle Leroy, Vidius rest his soul, got swarmed by kobolds. But he made it mean somethin’! He protected his family an’ the house till help could come. I figured, ever since, if everybody’s gotta go out, I wanna make it…y’know, important.”

“Well, you can do that on your own time, if that’s what you want,” she said curtly. “I have real work to do, and no more time to babysit you.”

“C’mon, Jeb,” Zeke said quietly, taking him by the elbow. “It was a good day’s work, now let’s not waste the paladin’s time.”

Jebediah resisted his brother’s tugging, still staring at Trissiny with a frown of increasing consternation. “Hell, ma’am, we ain’t made a’ glass. If you just don’t like us, you can say so.”

“Why would I like you?” Trissiny roared, causing him to shy back in shock. “The whole time I’ve been saddled with you two nincompoops has been one mess after another, all cause because you two are more incompetent at everything you attempt than any human being can possibly be and still be alive! I swear, you’re either fairies in disguise or you’re doing it on purpose, and either way I have had just about enough of your nonsense. You act like that in my business and within one week, tops, you’ll be dead with your entrails spread around a two-acre area. And just because I don’t want to watch that doesn’t mean it would be any less of a relief!”

Jeb gaped at her with his mouth open. Zeke, Toby, and Gabriel were a little more contained, but not by a lot; the shock appeared to be universal.

After a few excruciating seconds of silence, Jebediah closed his mouth, swallowed heavily once, and took a step backward. He carefully tipped his hat to her, turned, and walked away.

Zeke, seeming unsure what to do, himself, finally cleared his throat and tipped his own hat in her direction. “…ma’am.” Then he followed after Jeb, leaving stillness behind.

Trissiny watched them go, slowly drawing in a deep breath. She let it out with the same deliberate slowness, as if maintaining that control could expel everything seething in her at that moment.

Toby stepped up next to her. His expression, now, was purely concerned.

“Please don’t,” she said. He opened his mouth, closed it, nodded, and patted her on the shoulder.

“So, uh,” Gabriel said from behind them, “far be it from me to interrupt all the awkwardness, but you guys might wanna look at this.”

They turned, and what was coming up the path drove the whole conversation out of their minds.

Easily the most incredible thing was that none of the other people in the park reacted to the approach of the carriage; it appeared no one could even see it. Apart from being an unusual open-topped model and painted solid black, the carriage itself was not very noteworthy. Its driver, though, was a lean man in a broad black hat, holding a vicious-looking scythe which towered over his seat. It was the horses pulling the vehicle which were most alarming, though. Skeletally emaciated, they had eyes which flickered with dim blue flames, and streaming wisps of black smoke for manes and tails; their hooves made a peculiar ringing sound on the path, shod with brightly glowing metal which tended to send up sparks when it touched the ground.

The carriage pulled up to a stop right alongside them, and the driver tugged the brim of his wide hat, which was too broad to comfortably lift, and gave them a thin smile.

“Morning, kids,” Vidius said pleasantly. “Interest you in a lift?”

 

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14 – 4

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“Vesk,” said Lord Quentin Vex, the head of Imperial Intelligence himself, a round of explanations later when they were all seated at the table. He seemed a fairly unflappable man—at any rate, he had not reacted strongly when a paladin burst in upon his secret meeting—but now a grimace of naked irritation crossed his face. “After decades of silence, that makes the second time within a year he has personally intervened in one of my operations—and turned a discreet, efficient procedure into a misunderstanding that could have gotten people killed. Last time, it did. I haven’t the luxury of direct access to the gods, lady and gentlemen; I wonder if you would be so good as to ask Vesk, next time you see him, just what the hell his problem is?”

“I will be glad to convey the message, Lord Vex,” Trissiny said grimly, “in exactly those words.”

“It seems fairly obvious to me,” Toby said much more quietly. “Knowing Vesk’s general personality and tendencies, that is. Quiet operations going perfectly according to plan are boring. Potentially lethal mix-ups? Now that’s a story.”

“I really am sorry, Marshal,” Trissiny repeated, turning to the man she had recently bowled over. He hadn’t been more than bruised, and even that was quickly washed away by Toby’s healing.

“No harm done, General Avelea,” Marshal Shaspirian said with a smile. “Getting knocked down by a paladin makes a great anecdote! One I can only share with people of my security clearance, but they’re the ones who’ll be jealous, anyway.”

“So, just to be clear,” Trissiny said, casting a careful look around the table, “Vesk was lying? You two aren’t in trouble with the government?”

“It sounds, based on what you said, like he played his usual semantic game with you,” Toby replied, shooting a look at Gabriel. “We’re in the company of Imperial representatives, but not in…custody. And as for trouble… Well, I’m just along to look out for Gabriel.”

She turned an incredulous stare on Gabe. “What did you do this time?!”

“Hey, let’s not blow things out of proportion,” he protested, raising his hands. “It was just a very small amount of obviously accidental…treason.”

“Gabriel!”

“He jests,” Vex said dryly. “Imperial law is clear: the charge of treason requires proof of intent. Accidentally stumbling upon secrets which are Sealed to the Throne and then casually blurting them to foreign nationals is not, technically, a crime. But it’s a swift way to find yourself having a conversation with Intelligence.”

“A polite one,” Gabriel said hastily. “If you’re a paladin, I think the difference is.”

“I won’t sugar-coat it,” Vex agreed, looking at him sidelong. “Your status is the reason this discreet little chat is occurring in a tasteful residence loaned to us by the Sultanate and not a dim room somewhere deep in a fortress. But no, Mr. Arquin is not guilty of any crime against the Empire, nor even suspected of disloyalty. His Majesty simply wishes to express his hopes that the Hand of Vidius will comport himself with a little more discretion in the future.”

Trissiny planted an elbow on the table, so as to lean her face into her hand. “Gabriel.”

“Okay, you can dial it down a bit,” he said irritably. “It was a simple misunderstanding.”

“If I may?” Vex interjected in a mild tone. “Clearly, General Avelea should be brought up to speed, but in the interests of my department’s discretion, perhaps we should avoid you being the one to explain, Mr. Arquin.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Toby said with a benign smile which only intensified in response to Gabriel’s dirty look.

“A certain facility,” Vex continued, “contains, among other very sensitive matters, a fallen valkyrie who is working for the Empire. We provide her with safe housing and ensure she does not accidentally harm anyone—which requires total isolation, as she is involuntarily very dangerous. Yrsa is, strictly speaking, a prisoner, but on fairly amicable terms. We provide as best we can for her comfort and she assists with other matters in the facility. As it turns out, her sisters know she is there and check in on her regularly. I did not realize this until very recently.” He glanced at Gabriel, who tried to look nonchalant. “Mr. Arquin has taken an interest in Elder God facilities, after the recent events in Puna Dara in which most of your classmates encountered one.”

“Let me guess,” Trissiny sighed. “You’ve got those in with the valkyrie.”

“She is very helpful in that regard, having been alive when they were built,” Vex replied in his placid tone. “Similar structures were recently discovered under Puna Dara and, it turns out, beneath an elven grove on the Viridill/Calderaas border. Mr. Arquin’s valkyrie friends directed him to the sites held by the Empire and the elves, and he chose to visit the latter.”

“I was kinda hoping to avoid an incident like this,” Gabriel said with a grimace. “The elves were very helpful, though.”

“Yes, I’m sure they were fascinated to learn their Elder artifacts are not unique,” Vex said, tightening his mouth.

“I did not tell them anything else about what’s under Tiraas except that it’s there!” Gabe said hastily. “That was none of their business, or even mine. And hey, now you know the elves have one, too! That seems fair.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed. “This thing is under Tiraas?”

Gabriel’s eyes went wide. In the ensuing silence, Lord Vex began very slowly drumming his fingers on the table.

“Aw, dang,” Gabriel finally muttered. Toby burst out laughing.

The door slipped open and the woman in the maid’s dress, who had not been introduced, peeked in. She looked immediately at Vex, and waited for his nod to speak.

“Excuse me, but are these two…gentlemen…attached to the Sisterhood of Avei?”

“They certainly are not,” Trissiny said with open exasperation. Then, feeling a little remorse, added, “They are bystanders accidentally caught up in something out of their league, and they’ve been quite helpful to me. I do insist that they not be mistreated.”

“I have no intention of treating them in any way at all,” Vex said, allowing the tiniest frown to pass through his vague facade. “I thought I expressed that clearly.”

“Yes, sir,” the maid replied, tension creeping into her voice. “I passed that along. They don’t appear to have believed me.”

“We was followin’ orders!” a male voice said loudly from behind her, followed by a muted thump and a slightly muffled rejoinder.

“Hush up, Jeb, let the lady talk.”

In the ensuing jostling, the maid jerked forward against the door as if something had run into her from behind, and tightened her lips into a compressed line of clear irritation.

“Oh, for the—” Trissiny furiously shoved her chair back from the table.

“Marshal,” Vex said quickly. Shaspirian was already moving toward the door. At his approach, the maid gratefully began retreating, which appeared to be made difficult by the ongoing scuffle behind her. “I brought Marshal Shaspirian as security on this trip for a reason, General Avelea,” Vex reassured Trissiny while the Marshal gently shooed everyone back out into the living room and shut the door behind him. “He is adept at handling agitated non-hostiles. Believe me, Intelligence is not in the habit of persecuting bystanders.”

“Where did you find those guys?” Toby asked incredulously. “They don’t seem like the kind of people you ordinarily hang out with, Triss.”

“They found me,” she huffed, scooting back up to the table. “It’s a long story. I’m reasonably convinced they mean well and just aren’t accustomed to goings-on of this kind.”

“Most people are not, and so much the better,” Vex replied. “Back on topic, then. This has been an amicable discussion, Avelea, despite what Vesk apparently told you. We have helped each other out: Mr. Arquin consented to be debriefed on the Imperial secrets he actually learned and what he did with them, and I have arranged a private meeting with Princess Yasmeen, which evidently they needed in order to fulfill this…quest.”

“Given who we are, we could probably have just walked into the Royal Palace and asked for a moment of her time,” Toby added, “but…I think, as a rule, the more discreet, the better.”

“And I heartily encourage the observance of that rule,” Vex agreed. “To date I had not even inquired about the details of your endeavor, but if Vesk is going to make a habit of mangling my operations for his own amusement, I find myself suddenly a great deal more curious. What exactly does he want from you?”

“Nothing,” Trissiny said acidly. “Vesk doesn’t want things, he just likes to kick the anthill and watch us all scurry around.”

“It is pretty iconic,” Gabriel added. “We’re supposed to collect four pieces of some special key for him. A key to what, I don’t know. But that’s pretty much right out of the old bardic epics, isn’t it? Paladins sent to assemble the fragments of the long-lost magical doodad. His first hint was that Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had one piece, so…here we are.”

“Hm,” Lord Vex mused, even more noncommittally than usual. “I could see that going either way. Such an artifact may be important, or he might just have tasked you with collecting plot coupons so as to weave a good story. I imagine he’s suffered a dearth of those since the Age of Adventures petered out. You said he failed to mention what this key was for?”

“No such luck,” Toby said apologetically. “He’s been overall pretty vague.”

“I didn’t even know Yasmeen had the first piece,” said Trissiny. “Which makes sense, as I have no intention of wasting my time on one of Vesk’s lethally dangerous mockingjay hunts. I just came to extract these two from trouble, which it turns out they’re not even in. I’m going right back to what I was doing.”

“Aw, come on,” Gabriel wheedled, grinning at her. “How can you resist the call of adventure?”

“Is he serious?” she demanded, turning to Toby, who just shook his head.

“Wherever this business takes you,” said Vex, now pushing himself back from the table and standing up, “know that the Empire supports the goals of the gods and their Hands. If this is an adventure of the classic sort it’s unlikely to be possible for my agents to follow your movements, so I will not have them try. If, however, you need help, feel free to approach any Imperial Marshal. For now, I will bid you good day and good fortune on your task. Your other appointment should be arriving soon, and I don’t wish to intrude on that conversation.”

“Thank you very much, Lord Vex,” Toby said, rising as well. “For everything.”

“Of course.” Vex hesitated in turning toward the door, then shifted back and fixed Gabriel with a neutral look. “And, Mr. Arquin… If you find you have difficulty keeping secrets, perhaps you might adopt a policy of not learning them until you’ve had more practice?”

“That’s a good idea,” Gabe said, downright meekly. “I’ll just…request that the girls not go sniffing around in any more Imperial bases. Though I don’t see why they would, unless you have any more fallen valkyries squirreled away.”

“Just the one, thankfully,” Vex said dryly. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

With a final nod, he turned and slipped out through the door, leaving silence in his wake.

“I didn’t realize all the Imperial Marshals worked for Intelligence,” Gabriel said after a pause.

“They don’t,” Trissiny replied. “Imperial Marshal is the title given any law officer answerable directly to the Empire, authorized to carry and use lethal weaponry, and not a member of the military. It includes Intelligence agents, tax collectors, census takers, some members of the Surveyor Corps… A variety of duties. The whole idea is that if you’re dealing with a Marshal you don’t know who they are or what they can do. Might be an accountant, or a fully trained spy. Empress Theasia organized the system to stop the Houses from robbing her tax assessors.”

“Huh,” he mumbled. “So…what’s the difference between them and Sheriffs?”

“Marshals are Imperial and travel wherever their duties take them, Sheriffs are part of a structure organized by the Empire, but they work for the provincial governors and have a specific region they’re responsible for.”

“So…Sam Sanders back in Last Rock actually works for the Sultana?”

“For the Sultanate, anyway,” she said with growing impatience, “but all that aside, what were you two thinking? I mean, I can understand him!” She pointed at Gabriel, turning to Toby. “But you’ve had as much training as I have, surely. Didn’t anybody warn you about Vesk?”

“Oh, they sure did,” Toby said, making a wry face. “And I tried to warn Gabriel, but he’s been gung-ho about this from the very beginning.”

“Honestly, you’re such a pair of sticks in the mud,” Gabriel said, leaning back in his chair and grinning at them. “It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure, right out of the Aveniad! Learn to relax and enjoy things.”

“You see the problem,” Toby said to Trissiny, his grimace deepening. “I came along because the alternative would be leaving him to Vesk’s mercy, alone and unsupervised.”

“It’s been a good few years since I’ve needed a babysitter,” Gabriel complained.

“Well,” Trissiny retorted, “I’m only here because I was led to believe both of you were in some kind of peril.”

“So, let me get this straight.” Gabriel straightened up and leaned his elbows on the table, again grinning at them. “Vesk wanted all three paladins for his quest, but two thirds of them didn’t want to come. And yet, here we all are. Wow. He played you two like a couple of fiddles, huh?”

“That’s it.” Trissiny shoved her chair away from the table and stood.

“Okay, take it easy,” he said soothingly. “It’s not like I blew you off, Toby. You said a quest from Vesk was probably dangerous nonsense, so I arranged precautions.”

Trissiny was already heading for the door, but now hesitated, squinting suspiciously at him.

“Precautions?” Toby asked warily. “I almost fear to ask…”

“While you were packing,” Gabriel said with insufferable smugness, lacing his fingers behind his head, “I sent a telescroll to Tellwyrn explaining what we were doing and why. So if we’re late when classes start up in the fall, she’ll know what’s up.”

“You don’t think Vesk is actually afraid of Tellwyrn, do you?” Trissiny asked slowly.

“As in, for his life? Doubtful.” Gabriel shook his head, still looking placid and self-satisfied. “Now that I have privileged access to Church archives I’ve looked into the god she killed, and it sounds like Sorash created some really extenuating circumstances, and also had it coming. But there’s a lot of mess Tellwyrn can make short of deicide which Vesk probably doesn’t want to see happen. And he definitely won’t want the rest of the Pantheon on his case for setting her off. You know how she gets when people mess with her students.”

Trissiny and Toby exchanged a long look.

“It’s like this.” Gabriel lowered his hands, straightened up, and generally looked more serious. “Yes, I do wanna go on the quest, because it sounds exciting to me. But also, keep in mind we’re doing this at the instigation of a trickster god who’s already pretty deftly maneuvered both of you into complying. Before we decide to butt heads with someone like that, we’d better make sure it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t think it is. Seems to me the best course of action here is to play along, up to a point, but take precautions.”

“Now that you bring that up,” Toby mused, “if Vesk got any of us into real trouble for anything less than very excellent reason, all three of our cults and patron gods would land on him. Tellwyrn is pretty much icing on the cake.”

Trissiny sighed. “I still don’t like this.”

“And I don’t like cabbage sprouts,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But I eat ’em. Growing boy needs his nutrition.”

“You can’t actually believe doing this fool thing will be good for us?” she said incredulously.

He opened his mouth to reply, but there came a knock on the door. Before they could answer, it swung open and Jeb peeked nervously into the room, hat in hands.

“Uh…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Presenting her Royal Majesty—”

Zeke appeared in the doorway behind him. “It’s Highness, you goober, Majesty means a crowned head of state.”

“Gawd dammit, Zeke, I won the coin toss, I’m doin’ it!” Jeb hissed furiously at him. “A-hem. Her…Majestic Highness, Princess Yasmeen! Uh, of Calderaas.”

Both shuffled awkwardly aside and bowed almost parallel with the ground, Zeke at least having to flex his knees, being clearly not quite that agile. She appeared in the gap behind them, wearing a modest gown that showed wealth but not royal status, and a bemused expression. The Princess stepped forth, then paused, finding her way partially blocked by two bowing heads. After a moment, she turned sideways and carefully shuffled forward between them.

Gabriel visibly cringed; Trissiny covered her eyes with a hand.

Princess Yasmeen turned and said politely, “Thank you, gentlemen.”

The Jenkins brothers straightened up and grinned nervously at her.

“Yer welcome, ma’am,” said Jeb, turning his hat over and over in his hands. “And, uh, may I just say—”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think her Highness meant—”

“OUT!” Trissiny barked in her drill sergeant voice. They fell over themselves, almost literally, in obeying, but within seconds had vacated the room and shut the door behind them a good bit harder than it needed.

“I’m sorry to have missed Lord Vex,” said the princess, turning to smile at them, “but at least I haven’t missed all the fun. Apparently.”

“Thank you very much for coming to meet with us, your Highness,” said Gabriel, rising and bowing to her. “We greatly appreciate it. And there’s an explanation for all of this, which I will gladly share with you as soon as I figure out what it is.”

She laughed in evidently genuine amusement, easing much of the tension from the room. Yasmeen Aldarasi was a woman in her late twenties, pretty in a way that owed much to tasteful coiffure and cosmetics, and clad in a dress of dark gray silk with subtle patterns embroidered in black which were almost invisible at a glance. Altogether she was clearly a person of some wealth, though nothing about her presentation here suggested royalty.

“So! Toby and Gabriel,” Yasmeen said with a broad smile. “I believe I can tell who is who by description. And…?” She turned to Trissiny, adding an inquisitive tilt of her head.

“My presence here wasn’t planned,” she said apologetically. “Well, not by me, anyway. Trissiny Avelea, pleased to make your Highness’s acquaintance.”

“Trissiny!” Yasmeen’s expression positively lit up. “Wonderful! This makes it perfect. Sekandar has told me a lot about you!”

“Oh, I will just bet he has,” Gabriel said in an excessively solemn tone, then ignored Toby’s warning look.

“All three paladins, and fellow Last Rock veterans,” Yasmeen continued, pulling out the chair in which Vex had recently sat and dropping into it with a bit less grace than she had shown moments before. “You can’t imagine what a relief all this is. My whole day is nothing but parties, meetings, smiling politely at people and then plotting to stab them in the back before they do it to me. Oh, not literally, at least not in this century, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. Gods, I miss school. And the best part is you’re all so important Mother can’t complain at me for wasting time. Please, sit!”

“You enjoyed the University that much?” Trissiny inquired, slowly resuming her seat.

“Best four years of my life,” Yasmeen replied, answering with a borderline rakish grin. “Ah, I still miss my first Golden Sea excursion. After an unreasonably sheltered childhood, the whole experience was more joyous than I even know how to express. On the way back I got to punch a rock elemental!”

Gabriel let out a whistle. “How did that go?”

“Broke my wrist!” Yasmeen said proudly, holding up her right hand and flexing her fingers. “Believe me, that was very educational.”

“Oh, I believe it,” Toby assured her. “Honestly, your Highness—”

“Please! In private, it’s Yasmeen.”

“I’m just surprised,” he said, answering her infectious grin with one of his own. “We have a handful of nobility among the student body, and I’ve notice that…ah, how to put it…”

“More of them than otherwise tend to wilt outdoors,” Trissiny said dryly.

“Even Sekandar is more a quiet, keep-to-himself type,” Gabriel added.

“Ah, poor Sekandar,” Yasmeen said with a sigh. “He’s such a dutiful boy. It made it so easy to pick on him growing up, and makes me feel so guilty about it now. The sad irony of the hereditary matriarchy is that he would make a much better Sultana than I will. I once suggested that to Mother and she threatened to have me drawn and quartered. I am about…sixty percent sure it was hyperbole. But one learns, in Calderaas, not to assume that about Her Royal Majesty’s pronouncements. So, then!” She interlaced her fingers on the table, pushing aside Vex’s empty plate, and leaned forward to regard them with an eager grin. “Lord Vex was deliberately vague as only a spymaster can be, but I’m given to understand there is something about a divine quest! And you need my help, in particular?”

“I hope this isn’t too disappointing,” Trissiny said, “but I don’t think it’s anything all that important. We’re talking about an out-of-the-blue fetch quest from Vesk.”

“The god of bards?” Yasmeen raised her eyebrows. “Oh, dear. You are in trouble.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny exclaimed, looking pointedly at Gabriel.

“Why don’t I take it from the top?” Toby suggested gently. “As Trissiny…broadly implied, Vesk has a certain history of deliberately sending people on adventures that have no apparent purpose beyond the adventure itself. Which…honestly only appeals to about a third of us.”

“Yo.” Gabriel raised a hand. The princess winked at him.

“In this case,” Toby continued, “he wants us to gather the pieces of a key. We don’t know what it’s a key to, or anything else about it; all we have are broad clues, and in the case of the first piece, a specific one. Vesk claims the first piece is in your possession, Your—Yasmeen.”

“Mine?” She tilted her head, blinking twice and letting her gaze wander to a point beyond the room. “Humm. A piece of a key… How many pieces are there?”

“Four,” Gabriel answered.

“So a quarter of a key, then…assuming it’s divided evenly.”

“I’m sorry,” said Trissiny. “This must be as much a waste of your time as it is of ours.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Yasmeen replied, her grin returning. “It is rather exciting, isn’t it?”

“If you say so.”

“Ah, but you must be accustomed to direct communications from gods. For me, it’s not exactly part of the daily commute to work. And, in point of fact… I have a thought. Yes!” Abruptly, she pushed the chair back and stood. “Serendipitously—or perhaps not, under the circumstances—I believe there is something in this very house which may shed some light on this. Come, I’ll show you!”

They glanced at one another in surprise as she led the way back to the door out of the dining room, but rose and followed without further comment.

Out in the living room, Trissiny’s self-appointed escorts were clearly becoming restless. Zeke was standing at the front window, lifting the curtain to peek outside, while Jeb had picked up a fairy lamp in a ceramic housing made to resemble a rearing horse, and was examining it up close. At Yasmeen’s sudden entry, both jumped and straightened. Unfortunately, they also both lost some grip strength in the process, which did the curtains no harm, but Jeb went through a dramatic five-second fumble in which he almost managed to catch the lamp twice before it finally impacted the parquet floor with an expensive crunch. He immediately hid both his hands behind his back, staring at them wide-eyed, and swallowed heavily. Zeke sighed and tugged the brim of his hat down over his eyes.

Trissiny made a noise deep in her throat which echoed clearly across the room. Both brothers took two judicious steps back.

“Tell you what, gents,” Yasmeen said kindly, smiling at them. “Head through the dining room to the kitchen, and help yourself to anything in there. You must be getting hungry by this point, if you weren’t invited to lunch.”

“Uh…yes, ma’am!” Jeb said in surprise. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. I mean, your Maj…ness.”

“Much obliged, Princess,” Zeke said with more aplomb, removing his hat and bowing deeply.

Yasmeen glanced back at the three paladins, then tilted her head pointedly toward the other door out of the living room before heading that way. They followed, Trissiny after giving a long, warning look at the brothers Jenkins.

“Your cleaning staff may not thank you for that, Yasmeen,” she said upon stepping into the stairwell through the doorway. Behind her, the scuffling of booted feet hurrying through the house was cut off by another excessive slam of the dining room door.

“Oh, anyone responsible for cleaning this place is accustomed to inexplicable stains,” Yasmeen said lightly, already halfway up the stairs.

“Now that I think of it,” Gabriel said, following her, “Vesk specifically said the first fragment was in the possession of ‘the princess in her palace.’ That stuck in my mind; it has that over-the-top mysteriously poetic sound you get from prophecies in stories and whatnot. He didn’t specify you or Calderaas by name until after.”

“He said the same to me,” Trissiny added.

“I figured, based on that,” Gabriel continued, “the thing must be in the Royal Palace. But you think it’s here?”

“If my hunch is correct,” Yasmeen replied, “no, it is not. But there is something here I want to show you, which may shed some light on the matter. It’s just through here.”

She led them down a carpeted upper hall, opened a heavy oaken door, and ushered them into a spacious study. It was lined entirely by shelves laden with leather-bound books, most clearly old. Yasmeen went unerringly to one of these, tugging out a thick volume nearly as tall as her entire torso. The weight made her grunt, and Trissiny immediately stepped forward to lend a hand.

“Thanks,” Yasmeen said a tad breathlessly. “Just on the desk, there, if you please.”

Once it was set down as directed, she opened the heavy cover and began leafing through its pages with a deft, delicate touch, moving each with great care not to rumple it. The paladins clustered about, only Toby having the restraint not to crowd her, though Yasmeen didn’t seem to mind, being fully absorbed in the book. It appeared to be an art book of some kind, its pages filled with illustrations ranging from simple ink sketches to full-color paintings. The subject matter varied widely, the only theme being that the statues, jewels, weapons, armor and paintings depicted all looked expensive, and most old. Yasmeen was turning the pages too rapidly for them to read any of the accompanying descriptions, unfortunately.

“This is a book of some of the hereditary treasures held by the Sultanate of Calderaas,” the princess said absently. “Most of them, I daresay. It was printed in my grandmother’s time, and Mother isn’t one for accumulating knickknacks.”

“There is some neat stuff in there,” Gabriel said with a whistle. “Where can I get a book like this?”

“You can commission a bunch of the best artists and historians of your day to hand-craft a unique work of art,” Yasmeen replied with an abortive little huff that might have been a fragment of a chuckle. “Honestly, the things royalty finds on which to spend money. Sometimes I’m half-tempted to donate my entire monthly allowance to the Thieves’ Guild, just to see what happens.”

“I bet the Sultana would find that a splendid joke,” Trissiny said innocently.

“Brr,” Yasmeen shuddered. “Ah! Here we are!”

She spread the page open carefully, then stepped aside, going around behind the desk so the three of them could cluster in front and see what she had found. Depicted in a full-color painting on one page was a peculiar pendant on a twisted gold chain. Its setting was hammered gold, clustered with small gems, but the object they surrounded was a strange stone, long and narrow and cut in an uneven pattern.”

“Huh,” Trissiny said, reading the text on the opposite page. “It’s called Gretchen’s Dowry… Wait, not the Gretchen? From the story of Gretchen and Sayina?”

“Who’s the Gretchen?” Gabriel asked.

“The very same,” Yasmeen replied, then turned to Gabe. “It’s one of the great Avenist romances.”

He straightened up to stare at her, blinking in astonishment. “…there are Avenist romances?”

Trissiny rolled her eyes, then went back to reading.

“There are,” Yasmeen said gravely. “Even some which involve men. Not this one, though. It’s about the courtship of Princess Sayina of Calderaas and Princess Gretchen of Stalwar. The story goes, Gretchen’s father had no sons, and so as was traditional for the Stalweiss, held a great tournament. Whichever man won would claim the Princess’s hand in marriage, and be the next King. Actually, the wording of the tradition was changed to ‘whichever man’ because of these events. Before that…well, this was the third time a runaway Calderaan princess entered the games.”

“Oh, let me guess,” he said, grinning.

“The first two didn’t win,” Trissiny said, also smiling, though still with her eyes fixed on the page. “Apparently that was the point at which the Stalweiss stopped finding it funny. This thing really belonged to Gretchen? I always thought that story was a myth.”

“Oh, pooh!” Yasmeen scowled at her in mock outrage. “And you, the Hand of Avei. That story was always one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too,” Trissiny replied, “but the whole second act is a bunch of battles around Calderaas which obviously didn’t happen. Wars between Calderaas and Stalwar were pretty universally decided by which side of Veilgrad they were fought on. Calderaan heavy cavalry was all but useless in the mountains, but it obliterated anything the Stalweiss could field on the open plains. That’s part of what made Horsebutt such a menace. Nobody had ever seen Stalweiss archers riding Calderaan destriers before.”

“Since that fateful day in the Golden Sea,” Gabriel intoned, “I have made a point to read up the history of Horsebutt the Enemy, to verify that there was indeed a man by that name. It is well documented, and I want it entered into the record that I still refuse to believe it. It’s just too stupid.”

Toby cleared his throat. “The history is interesting, but maybe a little off-topic?”

“Yes, quite,” Yasmeen said, grinning now. “Anyway. Whatever its provenance, that necklace is part of the royal treasury. I got to wear it at my fifteenth birthday celebration. The setting is modern—obviously created only a few centuries ago, to judge by the technique, so it may not have been Gretchen’s—but the piece in the center is a fragment of mithril.”

Gabriel frowned. “A…piece of mithril? In a necklace, like a jewel?”

“A lot of the world’s most expensive pieces of jewelry are miscellaneous bits and bobs of mithril in masterwork settings,” Yasmeen said seriously, “most likely fragments of machines from the time of the Elder Gods. Look at the painting—see the detail on it? Dwarven-made mithril isn’t nearly so finely sculpted. The stuff cannot be conventionally forged; it simply doesn’t melt. Whatever method the dwarves use to shape it can’t produce anything more refined than a long cutting edge. Mithril blades are about as precise as they can make, and none shorter than an Avenic gladius; there are no mithril daggers. Anything more intricate is leftover from the Elder Gods. And in fact, pieces of pure mithril are the only Elder artifacts considered safe enough to collect. Being a natural magic neutralizer, it can’t carry curses.”

“Huh.” Gabriel blinked, then turned to Trissiny. “Did you know any of that?”

“I can’t decide which interests me less,” she said, “the Elder Gods, or jewelry. Look at this thing, though. See these details, at the top, there, and down on the sides of the other end?”

“Yes,” Toby said, peering closely at the painting. “It could be the shaft of a key. Those indentations are right where teeth would be attached, and a flat part at the other end to hold it while turning.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Yasmeen said in a tone of great satisfaction. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me until you showed up with your talk of keys and missions from the gods, but if what Vesk wants is a piece of a special key that I supposedly have, I rather think Gretchen’s Dowry is our best candidate.”

“Well, that raises some new issues, doesn’t it?” Gabriel said slowly, backing away from the book. “I mean, paladins or no paladins… Something tells me we can’t just walk off with a treasure of the Calderaan royal family.”

“In fact, I rather expect you could,” Yasmeen mused, wearing a mischievous little smirk. “In terms of sheer capability, getting into the royal treasury and looting it bare is probably within the scope of your power. Of course, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be consequences for that…”

“We are obviously not going to rob the Sultana,” Toby said firmly, “or you. In fact, I’m hesitant even to ask for an artifact like this to be handed over us, considering. We don’t know what this alleged key will open, or why Vesk wants to open it… And for that matter, we have only hunches and circumstantial evidence that this is the piece we were sent to find.”

“It almost certainly is,” Trissiny said, “though I heartily agree with the other half of your assessment. If the options are offending House Aldarasi or Vesk, I’ll go with the second one. I have some respect for the Aldarasis.”

“Oh, you’re all so serious,” Yasmeen chided them playfully. “Believe me, it will not be a problem to arrange for the Dowry to be delivered to you. I’d like to think the Sultanate would accommodate any paladin, at least to the extent of forking over some old trinket that has no actual use to us, but Calderaas is practically a second Viridill in terms of Avenist belief. My mother would probably give Trissiny the crown right off her own royal head. If!” She held up a finger. “If there were a good reason. Yes, I can get you your key fragment. But not, I fear, for free.”

A slight frown descended upon Toby’s features. “…I’m not sure it’s wise for us to get involved in Calderaan politics…”

“Please! Politics was mother’s milk to me,” Yasmeen assured them. “As such, I promise you I am not reckless enough to antagonize all three Trinity cults by blackmailing their paladins who are on a divinely mandated quest. No, I’ll have to ask for your help with something before I can hand over Gretchen’s Dowry…but I rather think you will like this, anyway.”

 

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14 – 3

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Both men immediately began babbling over each other, talking so rapidly and loudly their words were all but indistinguishable. They also started struggling against the bindings, prompting Rooter to roughly yank them both back into place.

Velvet had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise. “Flash?”

The other man grinned at her and raised a hand. In the air beside him, a second hand formed from arcane blue light. He made a slashing motion, and the construct followed, sweeping across the two prisoners and swatting them both upside the head, finally dislodging Ezekiel’s hat.

“Since it’s coming back to you now,” Velvet said to Trissiny in the ensuing quiet, “just who are these clowns?”

“Just a couple of randos, as far as I knew,” she replied. “I bumped into them on my first stop in the Rail station here, two years ago. The dumb one tried to pick me up. Pretty aggressively.”

“Which one’s the dumb one?” Rooter grunted.

“That would be him!” Ezekiel growled, giving his brother a hard look.

“Damn, girl,” Ringer commented, folding her arms. “I’m amazed you remember that at all.”

“I actually don’t get pestered by men all that much,” Trissiny said vaguely, deliberately not mentioning the Legion armor which was the likely cause of that. “And it was my first time away from home. The incident sort of stuck in my mind.”

“Uh huh,” Velvet said dryly. “Well, I’m sure they do things a certain way in Viridill, but while you’re in my city I’d better not hear of you taking cudgels to people over piddly crap like that. You said someone sent you,” she added, directing herself to Ezekiel. “Who?”

“Ain’t tellin’ you jack—”

“Goddamn it, Jeb, shut up!” Ezekiel barked. “That said, lady, he ain’t all wrong. What makes you think we’re gonna—”

“Flash,” Velvet said in a bored tone.

The glowing hand reappeared and slapped them again, then cut backward and hit them another time the other way. After its third pass, Jebediah tried to throw himself to the ground, which didn’t work as Rooter was still holding one end of the rope that tied his wrists.

“Would you cut that out!” Ezekiel shouted. “Land’s sakes, slapping? C’mon, what is this, finishing school?”

“As the only person here who has attended one of those,” Velvet said pleasantly, “I can assure you they aren’t this gentle. Lucky for you two, I find you rather amusing. Still, I obviously cannot have people thinking they can just burst in here with impunity—nor send lackeys to do so. Anyone I considered a real threat would have better sense, so you can be assured your boss won’t get worse than a talking-to and perhaps a good, solid slap of his own. Regardless, I do require a name. None of us are going anywhere till I get one.”

Ezekiel looked mutinous. “Yeah, well, I bet I can take this as long as—”

“Rainwood!” Jebediah squalled.

Velvet heaved a sigh. “Flash, I think it’s time to get more inventive.”

“Wait wait come on I’m serious!” Jebediah yelled frantically. “His name’s Rainwood, he asked us to come find the girl! He’s a—”

“I know who he is, honey,” Velvet said condescendingly. “That’s why I don’t believe you.”

“Fuck it, he didn’t say nothin’ about the Guild,” Ezekiel growled. “He’s right, ma’am, we was sent by Rainwood. He gave us ten doubloons each, I dunno where he got ’em from, man looks like he ain’t slept indoors in a year. But we’re between proper jobs an’ Jeb wanted to see the paladin again, so… Shit, though, we wasn’t paid to fight gawd dang Thieves’ Guild street soldiers!”

“This is your idea of a fight?” Ringer asked with a broad grin.

“Who’s this guy?” Trissiny inquired, turning to Velvet.

“Some elf,” the underboss said dismissively. “He used to a some kind of big-time adventurer, back when that was a real thing people did. Now he sleeps on a bench in a park. I have a hard time crediting that he would want to talk to a paladin, or be willing to cross the Guild for it. Or has twenty doubloons,” she added, giving the Jenkins brothers a sardonic look.

“Hm.” Trissiny frowned down at them; for the moment, both were keeping judiciously quiet. “He did say they weren’t told about the Guild. Apparently this elf just wants me for some reason, and I happened to be here.”

“That’s horseshit,” Rooter grunted. “Everybody knows the Guild’s here.”

“Are you kiddin’?” Ezekiel demanded. “I didn’t. Why the fuck would I? Maybe everybody important knows where the Guild is, but ain’t no honest workin’ folks got any business with you assholes.”

“I sorta have to give him that one,” Ringer said lightly.

“What can you tell me about this Rainwood?” Trissiny asked, turning to Velvet. She got a long stare in reply. “Boss,” she added belatedly, in a deliberately respectful tone.

“I just did,” Velvet replied after letting the silence hang another moment to make her point. “I do not keep tabs on every park-dwelling hobo and washed-up has-been in Calderaas, Thorn, I have plenty of my own business to worry about. I only know of this one at all because he’s sort of distinctive. You don’t see a lot of elves in that situation, and hardly ever an elf with black hair. Okay, what is it now?” she demanded when Trissiny clapped a hand over her eyes.

“…I think I had better go talk to Mr. Rainwood,” she said resignedly, slowly dragging the hand down her face. “Boss, if it’s all right with you, I’d like to be the one to address the matter of him sending people to harass the Guild. I’m pretty sure I can make your point about that. And if not, I’ll come right back here and notify you he needs further correction.”

“Well, I certainly don’t doubt your ability to make points,” Velvet said, raising an eyebrow. “What’s your stake in this, suddenly?”

“It’s family business, as it turns out.”

Velvet subtly narrowed her eyes. “…are you by any chance close to a conwoman called Keys?”

“I have refrained so far from shoving my boot up her butt,” Trissiny said flatly. “So, yes, I figure that makes me as close to her as anyone alive.”

“Uh, ‘scuze me?” Jebediah said almost diffidently. “Sorry to interrupt, but… Seriously, could we stand up? Or, hell, lie down. It’s just, I ain’t never kneeled this long at a stretch, not even in church. It’s a bitch an’ a half on the knees, ma’am.”

“Well,” Velvet drawled, “as it turns out, Thorn, we have here a pair of boobs who can take you right to Rainwood. Since you’re amenable, you have my blessing to go give him what he wants, and see how much he likes it.”


“So uh!” Jebediah burst out at the top of his lungs, making Ezekiel jump and mutter a curse. His efforts to try for a nonchalant expression were downright funny; the man had clearly been working up to this all the way across the city, chewing the inside of his cheek and shooting Trissiny increasingly nervous glances. It had taken him this long, and now they had almost reached the park; the crowns of huge trees were visible above the next row of townhouses. Jebediah cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m, uh, glad we had the opportunity to…um.”

“Meet you again,” Ezekiel finished from up ahead. He was facing forward, away from them, but his voice held barely-suppressed laughter.

“Uh, yeah, that.” Jebediah removed his hat and began turning it restlessly in his hands, watching Trissiny as though half-expecting her to take a swing at him. “When that elf guy said he wanted… Well, that’s sorta why I took on the job, ma’am. I, um, I’m glad of the chance to…apologize.”

Trissiny came to a stop, turning to face him. Behind her, the sound of Ezekiel’s boots on the sidewalk also halted. Jebediah actually shied back a half-step, but she made no move toward him.

“For?” she asked evenly.

He swallowed. “Um. For speakin’ to you in such a disrespectful manner, ma’am. I swear by Omnu’s name I didn’t mean no harm. Truth be told, I wouldn’t’a talked to a lady like that but… I, uh, sorta figured you could take a…um, direct approach.”

“Direct.” Slowly, she raised an eyebrow. “If by direct you mean pushy, rude and borderline predatory…”

“Now, I didn’t mean nothin’ like that,” he protested, his voice rising in pitch. “It’s just… Dang it, Zeke, help me out, here!”

Ezekiel huffed a derisive laugh, but stepped back over to join them. “All right, in truth, ma’am, the spirit meant well but the social skills were lackin’. Jeb’s learnt a bit since then about how to approach women. An’ more important, how not to,” he added directly to his brother, making a face.

“It’s just, it was the armor,” Jeb said almost desperately. “I thought… I mean, Legionnaires got a certain reputation, y’know?”

Trissiny stared at him, at a loss. The only sexual stereotype she had ever heard about Silver Legionnaires claimed that they didn’t like men at all.

“What I mean is,” Jeb babbled, clearly sensing he was getting nowhere, “they’re…tough. That’s the word. Brave, an’ kinda…no nonsense. See, part a’ the reason me an’ Zeke came here to the city is there ain’t a lotta girls out on the ranch. We was both lookin’ to settle down, not, y’know, chase skirts or nothin’. An’ Maw always told us, find a woman with a heart, a spine, an’ guts, cos a man can’t make do with only one a’ each.”

“So,” she said slowly, “you like strong women, and your solution to expressing this was to irritate the first one you met who had a sword?”

Zeke burst out laughing, earning a dirty look from his brother.

“All this is almost too ludicrous to discuss further,” Trissiny said, “but out of sheer morbid curiosity, I have to ask. Why the change of heart?”

“Oh, that’s simple enough!” Ezekiel chortled. “He tried that on another Legionnaire, when I wasn’t there to drag his ass away.”

Jeb grumbled and kicked the pavement.

“And got some manners drubbed into you with the flat of her blade?” Trissiny finished in her driest tone.

“Trust me, ma’am, an ass-kickin’ don’t get through Jeb’s skull,” Zeke said merrily. “I been tryin’ that since he could walk. Ain’t made any progress yet!”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jeb muttered. “She took me down to the Temple of Avei an’ got me a sit-down with a priestess. I got stuff…explained to me.”

“I’ll bet,” Trissiny replied.

“Not that way,” he said hastily. “I mean, I been yelled at an’ got my ears boxed more times’n I can count, an’ it don’t make much of an impression, y’know? All a body gets outta that is pissed off. Naw, Sister Shiri actually talked t’me. ‘Splained a lot about what bein’ a woman is like in this world, an’ how it comes across when some galoot comes up all in her space, makin’ faces an’ suggestions, an’… An’, ma’am, I just felt so ashamed. I truly only meant the best an’ I had no idea I was bein’ such an asshole about it. That’s why I jumped when a weirdo elf asked me an’ Zeke to find the Hand of Avei. I needed ta get that off my chest, an’ if you put a sword in me over it, well, so be it. But you’re here now, so, I’m sorry.”

He finished with a limpid stare, clutching his hat before him in both hands. Zeke had crossed his arms and was watching with a faintly amused smile.

“Well,” Trissiny said after a moment, “apology accepted. I’m glad you learned something. And I was hardly going to stab you over that. But I didn’t come to Calderaas to rehash that of all things, so if there’s nothing else…?”

“Right!” Jeb stuffed his hat back onto his head and hastened past her, beckoning with a broad gesture. “Right you are, ma’am, this way! We’re almost to the man hisself!”

While falling into step behind him, she gave Zeke a mystified look. He grinned and tipped his hat to her.

Around the next corner, the park opened up behind a gateway consisting of stone pillars supporting a wrought iron arch; it actually reminded her of the University’s entrance. It could apparently be closed, likely at night, but for now the broad iron gates stood open. As they passed the columns, she perused a sign warning that the park was heavily patrolled, and that horses and enchanted vehicles were not permitted. Beyond that, the cobblestone street became a much less carriage-friendly path of old rounded stones with thick moss growing in the gaps between them.

The park was clearly old, if not historic; the trees, to judge by their size, were centennial at least. Directly ahead of them was a fountain surmounted by a statue of an armored woman, likely a long-ago Sultana to judge by her headdress. Aside from a pair of trees flanking the path just before this, it was a clear area, with open lawns spreading out from the fountain. It seemed a popular place, with people strolling, chatting on benches, and a group of young men playing football.

Jeb led down a winding path which grew narrower as it entered a more tree-heavy region. Even as the canopy grew close enough together to interfere with the sunlight, it never came to resemble a grove. The ground was too flat and the underbrush nonexistent, the grass neatly trimmed—to say nothing of the benches, fairy lamps, and rubbish bins. After a few minutes of walking, as they were nearing what looked like the edge of the park itself, Jeb turned off the path and led them through a stand of towering bushes. In fact, they looked from a distance like a solid thicket, but up close there were paths easily broad enough for a person to get through. In a Guild-trained corner of her mind, Trissiny noted that such a spot was so perfectly designed for discreet assignations that some city planner had to have had that specifically in mind.

She put that aside, however, focusing on the person they were there to meet.

Rainwood really did give the impression that he lived in the park. Even for an elf, he looked wild; his clothing was shabby and appeared worn almost to the point of falling apart, and his black hair had evidently been hacked short with a dull knife and then repeatedly slept on. Nearby, to judge by the leaves in it. Though he was in his shirtsleeves at the moment, a ratty old coat was laid out across the park bench nearby, with a bulging knapsack tucked at one end to make an obvious if improvised bed.

Despite his ragged appearance, the man’s eyes were keen and alert; he was sitting up and watching as they approached, doubtless having picked out the sound of their footsteps long before they drew close.

“There she is!” Rainwood cried with an exuberant grin. “Well done, boys! So this is Principia’s kid. C’mon, cousin, come closer! Let’s have a look at you.”

“You can listen while you look, cousin,” Trissiny said, folding her arms. She had to school startlement from her features, having suddenly remembered where she had seen this man before. “I’m going to leave aside the matter of you peremptorily summoning the Hand of Avei whenever you like. Personally, I don’t much mind, but I won’t speak for what the Sisterhood might do if you interrupt its business. But a man with your history should certainly have better sense than to send hirelings to intrude on the Thieves’ Guild. Right now, Underboss Velvet seems more amused by this than angry, but that might change, depending on what I tell her next.”

Rainwood’s grin had faded, and now he transferred his incredulous stare from her to Jeb and Zeke, who stood nervously off to the side.

“I sent you,” the elf said slowly, “on a simple errand. Find the Hand of Avei and ask her to come see me. Simple. I even gave you the aid of a spirit guide to bring you right to her. And somehow, you turned that into me now owing the Thieves’ Guild an apology. Boys, there is screwing up, and then there’s you two.”

“Now, just a goddamn minute!” Jeb exploded. “We followed your dang floaty light thingy right to where it led us! An’ she was there, all right. So was a whole buildin’ full of Eserites. They jumped us as soon as we got in the door! Coulda taken ’em, too,” he added sullenly, “but they came from behind, an’ there was three of ’em, an’ one was a mage—”

“Don’t do that,” Trissiny said wryly. “You two aren’t a match for one good Guild enforcer. There’s no reason to be embarrassed about losing a fight to more dangerous opponents.”

“You didn’t happen to notice you were in the Black Market?” Rainwood said incredulously.

“Now, why in Omnu’s name does everybody keep expectin’ us to know what the fuck that even is?” Zeke demanded. “Who the hell is it y’all talk to who’s just expected to know where the Thieves’ Guild hangs out? We’re a couple a’ country boys who’ve been doin’ warehouse an’ factory work the last couple years, why the fuck would we know jack all about thieves?”

“He has a point there,” Trissiny observed. “Where’d you find these two, anyway?”

“Same way I find most things,” Rainwood said with a shrug and a sigh. “I consulted my spirit guides, and they directed me to these as the proper messengers for this task. I’m wondering why, now.”

“Oy, we did your fuckin’ job, ya smug knife-ear,” Jeb snapped, pointing accusingly at him. “You wanted the paladin, there she is. Anybody oughta be pissed off, here, it ain’t you! We was the ones who got sent inta the damn Guild with no warnin’!”

“Forgive me,” Rainwood replied, smiling sardonically, “but when I sent you off to follow a spirit guide through the city, I expected that if it led you to something dangerous, you would come back here and tell me so rather than charge headfirst into it.”

“Enough,” Trissiny interjected. “I don’t have time for this bickering. You were all negligent. Now what am I going to tell Velvet about this?”

“Oh, Velvet’s too much a professional to fuss over spilled milk,” Rainwood sighed. “I’ll go down there and say my sorries, and give her something sparkly from my collection. That’ll put that mess neatly to bed. But that brings us back to the question which most intrigues me: what were you doing in the Thieves’ Guild headquarters? And how does it come about that you’ll be the one reporting on my behavior to the Underboss? Hands of Avei and Eserites usually only talk with sword and clubs.”

“She, uh, wasn’t bein’ held prisoner,” Ezekiel offered. “Fact, the boss lady seemed to speak to ‘er pretty respectful-like.”

“Damn dirty thieves don’t want that kinda trouble,” Jeb scoffed. “They’re cowards, is what they are. They’ll rough up the likes o’ us, but a paladin? Pfft.”

Trissiny gave him a brief glance, while deftly producing a doubloon from inside her sleeve, where she kept it for that purpose in a little pocket. She turned her eyes back to Rainwood and rolled the coin back and forth across her fingers, saying nothing.

“Well,” the elf breathed, his gaze fixed on the doubloon, “what do you know. The times really are changing, aren’t they.”

“Lots of things change,” Trissiny said, making the coin disappear back into its hiding place. “Now, if your curiosity is satisfied, let’s move on to mine. What do you want?”

“Why, to help you in your quest!” he proclaimed with a smile which made him look uncannily like Principia, and threw his arms wide.

Trissiny rolled her eyes.

“I know, I know, I don’t look like much,” Rainwood said cheerfully. “It suits me, for the time being! But, believe it or not, I have more than one connection to you. Aside from family business, I’ve been—”

“You were an adventuring companion of a Hand of Avei,” she said. “Yes, I know. Dailah, wasn’t it?”

He blinked, lowering his arms. “Huh. The Sisterhood really does educate you well, don’t they?” She kept silent, deciding it was probably best not to mention Kuriwa’s vision quest to him; Trissiny had had relatively little contact with the elvish side of her family, but so far every Crowblood she’d met had reacted negatively to every other one. Including the dragon. “Anyway, actually, I’ve palled around with three of your predecessors, including Dailah. I was going to say Arjen would vouch for me, but I guess you’re already in the know. How’s my boy, by the way? Please tell me you give him apples? Apples are his favorite snack.”

“He likes apples,” Trissiny corrected. “His favorite snack is peppermints.”

Rainwood looked affronted. “What? Who told you to do that? What kind of degenerate would give a horse candy?”

“All right, that does it,” she snorted, turning to go. “Deal with Velvet in your own time, then, but don’t dally; I’m not leaving Calderaas without reporting to her. And tell Vesk to take his nonsense and shove it—”

“Ooh, you’re on a Vesk quest!” The elf sat bolt upright, his whole face positively lighting up. “Fantastic! Those are the best ones!”

Trissiny paused. “If you’re not working with Vesk, then what’s this noise about helping me with my quest? I’m not even doing his fool errand, I’m just going to extract Toby and Gabriel from whatever mess he’s gotten them into.”

“If Vesk is involved, it’s not going to be that simple,” Rainwood warned, smirking, “and your efforts to make it so will only lead you into grief. But to answer your question,” he continued hastily when she drew a deep breath, “you’re not the only person bopping around with a destiny, Trissiny. I make a point of regularly consulting the spirits. You know, seeing which way the wind blows. I, myself, am soon leaving Calderaas; it seems I’ve an important quest to fulfill out west. But as I was reaching out through the vast web of magic, I discovered that you had just arrived! My long-lost half-blood cousin and the heir to the legacy of some of my closest departed friends. How could I not interrupt my business to help you out?”

She hesitated, peering suspiciously at him. “That’s it? You just want to help?”

“I can see you’ve had a hard time of it, if you’re already so mistrustful of free help,” he replied, shaking his head. “Even Dailah took a few more years to get that hard-nosed. Who is it who’s let you down, Trissiny? Elves? Shaman? Adventurers? Family? People in general?”

“Yes, for starters.”

He laughed. “Ah, the all-knowing despair of youth.”

“Have I mentioned I attend Arachne Tellwyrn’s school?” she said pointedly. “If I want to be condescended to by smug elves, I have a long-term source of that. Not in the market, thanks.”

“All right, all right, fair enough,” he said, raising his hands peaceably. “Back to your quest, then. How can I help you?”

Trissiny let the silence hang for a moment, staring at him. Rainwood just gazed back with a placid smile. Well, Lanaera had made the point that while their lineage found one another generally exasperating, they wouldn’t harm a family member unless that person made it absolutely necessary, which they all tried very hard not to do. And he had been a friend of Dailah; even if she chose to be suspicious of his claim to have worked with two other Hands, she had seen that much herself.

“I’m looking for the Hands of Omnu and Vidius,” she said at last. “According to Vesk, they set out on this idiot quest of his, and somehow ended up being held by the Empire, somewhere here in Calderaas. I’m trying to find them to straighten this out, but I have no leads. The local Guild doesn’t know where they might be; Velvet could only say that it was unlikely the Empire would actually detain them, which I already knew.”

“That is some funny business,” Rainwood mused. “Coming from any source but a god, I would dismiss it out of hand. Even Vesk doesn’t tend to straight-up lie to people’s faces, though. I warn you, however, he does tend to tell people things in a way that makes them hear something other than what’s the truth, and leaves him wiggle room to claim he didn’t deceive them when they complain later.”

“Yes,” she said sourly, “I’m not good at that trick but I’m familiar with it. I’ve been assuming this was one of those.”

“And you probably ought to find those two Hands anyway, just to make sure,” he said, nodding. “I see where you’re coming from, now. Well!” The shaman clapped his hands together and then rubbed them briskly, grinning. “This is good news! I was half-afraid involving myself in your business would get me in real trouble, but this couldn’t be simpler. Paladins tend to create ripples just by existing. Should be the easiest thing in the world to dip my fingers in the pond and get a sense of where they might be. Stand back!”

Zeke and Jeb obediently shuffled backward several steps; Trissiny, who was already a few yards away, just folded her arms and watched. Rainwood didn’t seem to object to her presence, focusing on what he was doing.

The hand motions he made reminded her more of a street magician performing than any actual casting she’d ever seen. He was clearly a potent shaman, though, calling up raw magic itself without the use of any of the rituals or components that usually marked fae craft. Rainwood appeared to summon swirling dust out of thin air, shaping and stirring the cloud as it coalesced with broad, sweeping gestures. It whirled, faster and faster, condensing in one spot until he suddenly jerked his hands apart and, with a tiny spray of excess powder, the dust formed into a solid shape on the ground in front of them.

It was a house. By its tall and narrow construction, one of the rows of townhouses which were built right up against each other, though this image showed only the one and not its neighbors. It was apparently a rich one; its facade and the garden wall in front of it included an arrangement of pillars topped by gargoyles. The effect was almost a faux temple, though Trissiny had never seen any Pantheon sanctuary incorporate gargoyles into its décor. Rich people had strange tastes.

“Huh,” Rainwood grunted, slowly lowering his hands. “That’s disappointing.”

“Was it supposed to do more than that?” she asked dryly.

“No, no, it worked perfectly,” he assured her. “That is where your friends are, right in that house. I was just hoping they were someplace more…distinctive. That could be any one of a hundred noble’s city homes in Calderaas. I suppose it narrows things a bit. There’s only a few ritzy neighborhoods where a place like that could be tucked away. Well! Don’t worry, I’m not thwarted yet. It’ll be a little trickier than sending one after you, since I’ve no personal connection to those guys, but I’m confident I can persuade a spirit guide to lead—”

“Hey, I know that place,” Jeb said suddenly.

Everyone turned to stare at him. He was nodding as if to reassure himself, and pointed at the illusion of the townhouse on the ground between them. “Yeah, yeah, I recognize that! Ain’t never seen another place looked quite the same. That’s where Dolly used ta work. You remember Dolly, don’cha, Zeke?”

“Course I do. That girl was too good fer you, Jeb.”

“She surely was,” Jeb said with a dreamy sigh, lifting his eyes to gaze reminiscently at nothing.

Trissiny and Rainwood cleared their throats in unison.

“Right, yeah!” Jebediah snapped his attention back to the present. “Anyway. Dolly used t’be a maid, worked for the Sultanate, an’ that’s one o’ their properties. Ain’t no guards or nothin’, it’s a discreet sorta place where they, y’know…keep folks.”

Trissiny frowned. “Political prisoners?”

“Uh, no. Not that kinda keep.” Jeb cleared his throat awkwardly. “You know, people the royal family, uh…likes to come…visit. Personally.”

“Oh.”

“So, anyway, yeah,” he barreled on hastily. “Princess Yasmeen had a boyfriend she let stay there. But the Sultana found out an’ threw a fit. He got sent outta Calderaas, an’ the whole staff was dismissed. Dolly ended up goin’ home to Veilgrad, an’…well, we stayed here.” He trailed off, looking forlorn. Zeke placed a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s amazing,” Trissiny observed, “the degree to which my business in this city is being defined by your bad luck with women.”

“Good on you fer noticin’ early,” Zeke said dryly. “It sneaks up on ya, otherwise, like a big silent tornado o’ Jeb drama. Next thing ya know, everything an’ everybody around is sucked up in it. Omnu’s balls, if this cowpoke ever manages to get hisself hitched there’s gonna be a gawd damn recession.”

“One o’ these days I am really gonna kick your ass, boy,” Jeb growled.

“Well, there you go,” Rainwood said grandly. “And to think I was actually wondering why the spirits would send me these two when I sought the right help. Once again, they knew even more than I anticipated! And now you have the perfect guides.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh.


It took over an hour to find the place. Jebediah’s memory turned out to be accurate…eventually. Luckily, neither of the two occasions on which he got them lost occurred in this neighborhood. The three of them looked badly enough out of place that Trissiny feared they would be stopped by police if they wandered around. Scruffy vagabonds were high on the roster of things the very wealthy did not want to see out their front windows. At least Rainwood hadn’t come. The addition of a half-savage-looking elf would probably have gotten them picked up the moment they set foot on this street.

“See, I told you I knew the place!” Jeb said loudly, coming to a stop in front of the house. “There it is, jus’ like in—”

Trissiny already had her back to them, studying the gate, but to judge by the thump and ensuing scuffling which cut off Jeb’s loud pronouncement, Zeke had swatted him upside the head. She’d barely spent a couple of hours with these two and it was already a familiar sequence of sounds.

“Fighting on the street isn’t a whole lot more discreet than shouting our business for the neighbors to hear,” she commented in a low voice, opening the gate and striding up the path. “Thanks, boys, I can take it from here.”

She sighed and gritted her teeth at the sound of boots shuffling along after her, all the way up to the front door, but did not turn around. Arguing with the brothers Jenkins might or might not have been a pointless activity, but at the moment it was certain to draw unwelcome attention.

“Don’t you worry none, Ms. Trissiny,” Jeb said fervently in a stage whisper, coming to huddle behind her. “We got your back! Zeke, keep watch fer assassins!”

Ezekiel half-turned, crouching on the other side of the entranceway from his brother and peering surreptitiously around. The two of them could not have more ostentatiously looked like they were up to no good. At this point, it wasn’t a matter of whether police were going to come, but when.

“You need help bustin’ in the door?” Jeb asked out of the side of his mouth.

“Don’t be any stupider’n you can help, Jeb, we’re doin’ this discreet-like,” Zeke retorted. “Mebbe we can pick the lock? Or, I dunno, if them paladins ain’t actually in trouble, we might just knock—”

Trissiny turned the latch. The unlocked door swung open on well-oiled hinges.

“Huh,” Jeb remarked behind her as she slipped inside. “Well, that don’t seem right. Maw always said, you gotta lock your doors if you live in the city.”

She seriously considered shutting it in his face, and refrained only because it would have created an even greater outcry than their continued presence.

Beyond a short entry hall was an expensively furnished sitting room, with an open doorway leading off into a hallway on one side and a polished wooden door directly ahead. Trissiny stepped warily forward, peering around, the Jenkinses huddling right behind her. The house was quiet, but not silent; from the closed door came the muffled sounds of conversation. She moved carefully, as taught by the Guild, her supple boots (quite distinct from the armored ones she had been in the habit of wearing) making barely a sound on the marble floor tiles.

Given the shuffling and stomping which occurred right behind her, she probably needn’t have bothered.

Before she could hush them, the door opened, and a man slipped out. He wore a dark suit with a long coat which, though it resembled the uniform of the Imperial Guard and Hands of the Emperor, didn’t quite constitute a uniform. Regardless, his eyes widened at the sight of the three of them, and he raised a wand.

Trissiny surged forward, a golden shield flaring alight around her. With a brilliant flash, her sword materialized in her hand, though she did not summon her armor just yet. Two clean beams of white light impacted on her energy shield before she closed with her opponent—that was a proper enchanter’s wand, not a cheaper lightning-thrower. That weapon could burn down even her divine shield if she let him get in too many shots.

She kept the sword behind her, turning sideways at the last moment to impact the guard with her shoulder. That was pure muscle memory; wreathed as she was in a sphere of hard light, it didn’t much matter how she hit him. Fortunately for them both, the door opened inward. He was slammed back through, hurling it wide, and she actually bounced off, the edges of her shield impacting the door frame on both sides.

“Trissiny?”

Catching her balance, she blinked at the scene beyond the guard she had just knocked down. It was a dining room, well-lit and every bit as pricey as the living room behind her. A long table had been laid for a meal; three men were seated around it, while a shocked-looking woman in a maid’s uniform stood against the far wall, all of them staring at her in the doorway. The middle-aged man in the center, who wore a nondescript dark suit, had half-risen, one hand dropping to his side where he doubtless had a weapon concealed.

The other two she knew.

Toby had been sitting with his back to the door and now turned around in his chair, blinking at her. It had been he who’d said her name.

“Uh, hi, Triss,” Gabriel added from the other side of the table, carefully wiping his mouth with a fine linen napkin. “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but… What the hell are you doing?”

Trissiny let her shield wink out, straightened up, and lowered her sword.

“That damn bard.”

 

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14 – 2

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A lot had changed in just two years.

The Rail caravans were less utilitarian in design, now, the spartan steel and glass construction clearly influenced by the aesthetics of modern carriages, painted in Imperial black and silver and with much more plush seating in a deep wine red. Gone were the (barely) padded benches within, too; each compartment had designated seats complete with armrests—and most importantly, heavy canvas harnesses which passengers could use to fasten themselves down.

Even the need for those was somewhat lessened. Discreetly glowing sigils decorated metal plates lining the baseboards and ceiling of the compartments, and for one who had traveled the Rails before they were installed, the effect was obvious: the violent slinging that occurred when the caravans navigated curves at faster than the speed of sound were significantly mitigated. Not completely; it was still a rough enough passage that everyone took advantage of the harnesses. Apparently the state of the art wasn’t yet up to neutralizing forces like that—or, more likely, such potent enchantments weren’t economical. Regardless, it was progress, clear and welcome.

The lawyers had been busy, too. Both the warning signs posted on Rail platforms and the fine print on the tickets cautioned, in addition to statements that Rail travel was dangerous and passengers accepted sole responsibility, that persons who for medical, religious, or any other reason should not be exposed to arcane enchantment should not ride the Rails.

Preferring not to draw attention, Trissiny had bought a ticket in Saddle Ridge rather than pulling rank for a free ride. Her armor, for now, remained back at the grove with Lanaera. She could easily summon it to her at need, but the idea was to avoid such a situation if possible.

Even with the improvements, a Rail ride wasn’t a gentle experience, especially for those not used to it. She ended up being the last off the caravan, just because the rest of her fellow travelers were in a much greater hurry to get themselves out of it, and she didn’t see fit to contest them.

The great Rail station of Calderaas, aside from its expanded warning signage, looked very much as she recalled from her previous visits. Some effort had been made to improve the place visually: there were now small trees in heavy pots located in discreet corners. They would require careful watering, of course, but the huge glass roof would provide plenty of sunlight. Still, after coming directly from an elven grove, she thought the poor things looked downright emaciated. More strikingly, banners had been hung from the arched roof high above, affixed to the steel supports directly. The Imperial flag, a silver gryphon on a black field, alternated with Calderaas’s own rearing horse in gold over red.

She didn’t make for the station’s doors right away. There was bound to be at least one example of what she was looking for here; the trick was finding it without drawing attention, and thereby trouble.

Trissiny kept an eye out while walking among the Rail platforms, as she’d been taught in Tiraas. Face forward, gait purposeful, eyes constantly moving. First, she made her way to Platform 9, the same one upon which she’d waited for her caravan to Last Rock on her first visit here. There was still an elf selling tea from a stand on one of the attached spaces, under her sign labeled Platform 9¾. Trissiny bought a paper cup of the herbal brew, then headed away from the Rail platforms themselves toward the broad indoor avenue at the front of the station, lined with more permanent shops and people browsing, or moving to and from the Rail lines. There, she made a show of craning her neck to read shop signs before heading toward a notary and stationer, where she picked up a cheap street map of the city.

All the while, she carefully kept an eye out, as unobtrusively as possible, for what she sought. The first few minutes of this were discouraging, but she spied a likely prospect almost immediately upon stepping down from the platforms to the shopping court. A skinny girl was moving through the crowds, hawking newspapers, and several key details of her performance were off. She was carrying barely half a dozen papers, moving erratically through the crowd rather than picking a spot as a vendor usually would, and not trying nearly hard enough to draw attention to her wares. Suggestive, but not definitive. Trissiny wasn’t sure until she re-emerged from the notary’s just in time to see the paper girl collide clumsily with a well-dressed gentleman and stumble away, cringing and stammering excuses.

Trissiny tucked her map under her arm and waited until the mark had stalked off on his way before approaching the young woman.

“Morning,” she said in a pleasant tone, casually rolling a doubloon across the backs of her fingers. “You look like information is your business! Spare a few moments for a curious voyager who’s just tumbled off the turnip cart?”

The girl scarcely glanced at the coin, fixing her eyes on Trissiny’s face. “Time’s money, love, but moments and pennies I can spare. You hunting something in the city?”

“Not here to hunt, no. Just passing by and looking to be a courteous guest.”

“Righto!” With a broad grin, she began casually backing toward the wall; Trissiny followed along, and in seconds they had positioned themselves out of the flow of traffic, against a spot between two small storefronts.

“Pinkie,” the girl said, tugging the brim of her cap.

“Thorn,” Trissiny replied, repressing her reflexive query. You didn’t get snarky about another thief’s tag unless the goal was to start a fight. “Sorry to take you from your own hunting, I won’t be long.”

“Eh, it’s not much of a hunting ground,” Pinkie said lightly, waving away her apology. “Just collecting the Unwary Tax here and there; no proper fun to be had in a place like this. What can I do you for, Thorn?”

“I’m just arrived; it’ll be my first time in Calderaas, or at least first time stepping outside the Rail station. Can you direct me to the chapter house?”

“Got specific business?” Pinkie asked in a deceptively disinterested tone. Getting that nosey was borderline rude, but Trissiny opted not to make a thing of it. She was the stranger here, after all.

She shook her head. “Just looking to make myself known to the local boss, and get the lay of the land. I don’t plan to be in town long, but I may be long enough to look for a job or two, and last thing I need is to step on anybody’s toes. I can do without getting my butt kicked for not knowing who does the kicking around here.”

“I hear that, sister,” Pinkie replied with a broad grin. “You want the Black Market, it’s easy to find. Head north toward the palace, hang a left when you reach the statue of Sultana Alizara, and follow Briar Street west till you reach the Theatre District. It’s a bit of a maze and you’ll have to wander a little, but any street or alley with black paper lanterns strung over its entrance leads into the Market. You’ll find it pretty quick if you’ve got eyes in your head.”

Trissiny couldn’t help raising her eyebrows. “It’s…actually called the Black Market?”

“This really is your first time in Calderaas, huh,” Pinkie said, grinning even wider. “Ours is an ancient city, steeped in tradition. We appreciate the classics around here. Where’d you roll in from, then?”

“Trained in Tiraas,” she said nonchalantly, “but I’m from Viridill.” One of Style’s basic rules: the less you lied, the less you’d have to remember.

“Ooh, Avenist country,” Pinkie said with a sympathetic wince. “I can see why you’d leave.”

“Yeah, I prefer not to spend any more time in a Legion cell. They have no sense of humor.”

They were already ambling back out into the shopping court, refraining from lingering too long in surreptitious conversation, and at that Pinkie laughed aloud. “Well, I hope you didn’t come here looking for a place less political than Tiraas. The local Houses love their so-called Great Game. Everybody’s a pawn, far as they’re concerned.”

“Thanks for the tip, and the directions.” Trissiny flicked the doubloon, which Pinkie deftly snagged out of the air. “Avei’s blessings upon you, sister!”

That earned another loud laugh, and the thief waved broadly as Trissiny turned to head for the doors. “Welcome to Calderaas!”

She made it barely another dozen steps before being intercepted by a man in a dark coat, with a silver gryphon badge pinned to the lapel. He planted himself directly in her path, fixing her with a flat stare.

“I don’t want any trouble out of you,” he rumbled, pointing one thick finger at her, almost close enough to touch.

“I don’t want trouble out of me, either, Sheriff,” she said politely. Had the coin roll been too brazen? Actually, a man responsible for the law in this station probably knew who the pickpockets were, and could guess what it meant when a stranger engaged one in private conversation. Fortunately, talking to police was one of the basic skills without which you didn’t earn a tag in the Guild. “I’m just passing through town to look up some old friends; I expect to leave within a day or two.”

“Hm,” he grunted, bushy eyebrows drawing together. The sheriff made no further comment, however, letting the silence hang heavily for another moment before stepping aside to let her pass.

Trissiny couldn’t help smiling wryly as she stepped out onto the street. It had been the same man who had greeted her so respectfully the first time she had set foot in the Calderaas station, two years ago. Tricks had been right; that distinctive silver armor protected her from more than physical harm. So long as it was there to be gawked at, most people wouldn’t even notice her face.


Her knowledge of cities worked against her, initially.

Tiraas and Vrin Shai had both been planned, and situated within highly defensible geographical features with regular shapes; the layout of their streets was downright mathematical. The same was true to a lesser extent of Veilgrad, the bulk of which had been built atop its distinctive rocky peninsula from the Stalrange over the prairie. Though it was less rigidly orderly, its position enforced a degree of regularity in its features.

Calderaas, by comparison, was a mess.

Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that it was a complete inverse of Tiraas. Positioned within a crater rather than on a mountaintop, it did have distinct boundaries, delineated by the ancient walls which lined the rim of the caldera, but the shape of Calderaas’s mountain was oblong and irregular. And even within that, its structures appeared to have sprouted up organically. The Royal Palace was near its center, and buildings had fanned out from it like the roots of an architectural tree, with streets forming haphazardly between them. The same had occurred in multiple places, from the city gates and major wall fortifications, from its Cathedral and main Pantheon temples, from the palaces of the original Houses who had first settled it—ancient bastions which had since changed hands multiple times. These features had extended a sprawl of urban growth until they overlapped and filled the caldera, forming the jumbled layout of the old city. And then had come the modern era, when the simultaneous rise of great factories and demolition of crumbling, unstable structures had repeated the process in miniature, resulting in a layout of streets that didn’t even try to make sense.

She had bought the map simply as cover while she scanned for a Guild member to ask for information, but now was grateful she had it. Even with the benefit of Pinkie’s directions, she would have swiftly gotten lost without it. Briar Street, for example, passed through no fewer than three intersections on the way to the Theatre District from which multiple streets branched off at weird angles and no signs indicated which one was still Briar Street.

It took over an hour, but she did get there. Ironically, navigating the Theatre District hadn’t been all that difficult, perhaps because she had been forewarned that it was a maze and by that point expected no different from Calderaan streets. Also, as the name suggested, it had a large number of theaters, which tended to be sizable buildings that made convenient landmarks and forced the streets into fairly regular patterns. It wasn’t long after entering the district that she found an alleyway with a string of black paper lanterns above it.

A few street performers were positioned next to the entrance, a young woman dancing while a boy played a spritely accompaniment on a violin. Past them, unobtrusive by comparison, was an old man seated on a barrel, whittling a block of wood with an excessively large knife. He sized Trissiny up as she stepped into the alley, but returned her polite nod and made no move to interfere with her.

The Black Market, as it turned out, was a single oval-shaped street in the center of the Theatre District, reached by a dozen different alleys and side streets. Every structure which faced it from the outside was considered Guild turf, though all were independently owned and mostly contained businesses which served the thieves and various unsavory types whose presence the Guild tolerated. The structures encircled by the round street were the Guild’s actual property and contained all of its directly owned interests.

All of this Trissiny learned during the judicious time wasting to which she devoted herself upon arrival. This was different from the Rail station; trying to deflect attention from what she was doing was not only a sure way to wear out her welcome, but was actually contrary to her intentions here. She was the unknown in this city, and getting anywhere with the local Guild meant making herself known, and making it plain that she wasn’t bringing trouble. As such, she meandered around, shopping and taking the excuse of those minor transactions to gossip with the Guild-aligned businesspeople she met. Dropping some coin didn’t hurt her position, either, and so she did.

By noon, she had had a decent lunch of kebab, followed later by a snack of cinnamon-sugared flatbread, acquired a set of lockpicks, a tough coil of rope, and a few basic alchemicals, and learned some interesting things about the city.

They had a very different relationship with the local nobility than did their counterparts in Tiraas, for example. While the Guild in the Imperial capital ran their ostentatious casino to openly and directly fleece the rich—in a way the rich didn’t even seem to mind, which Trissiny had always found rather brilliant—the Calderaan thieves regarded their own aristocrats with pure hostility. At the root of it were the different styles of local governance. The Silver Throne kept its nearby Houses at arm’s length, and between the presence of the Army serving as the capital’s police force and the much more fearsome specter of Imperial Intelligence, the scheming of nobles in Tiraas was kept at manageable levels. By contrast, the Sultana preferred (or was forced) to actively play politics with her own rivals, resulting in a hodgepodge of powerful Houses who engaged in perpetual, aggressive maneuvers against each other. These resulted in near-constant excesses which got bystanders involved, to their detriment, and that invariably brought retaliation from the Thieves’ Guild.

The nobles, being nobles, took this into account, and tried to trip each other up into antagonizing the Guild. Trissiny quickly discovered that the Eserites deeply resented being made to play a role in the Game of Houses, but saw no alternative; if not for them, hardly anything would keep the nobles in check. The Houses certainly didn’t fear the Sultana the way they did the Emperor. In fact, only the ruling House of Aldarasi regarded the Guild with any real respect, and rumor was that neither the Sultana nor the local Underboss enjoyed this irony.

All of which was mildly interesting, but Trissiny didn’t much care about local politics herself. However, her entire purpose here was to discreetly gather information about where, how, and why the Imperial government in Calderaas might be holding two paladins against their will—which, of course, she didn’t dare ask about directly. So local politics it was. Fortunately that appeared to be the topic of chitchat around here; getting people she met to talk politics was even easier than giving them her coin. Unfortunately, the picture she was painting in her mind of the situation in Calderaas only added to her questions without answering them.

There scarcely was an Imperial presence in Calderaas these days, and hadn’t been since the Enchanter Wars. House Aldarasi, together with House Madouri and the Universal Church, had conspired to place the previously-obscure House Tirasian on the newly-restored Silver Throne, in a gamble to control the resurgent Empire without becoming targets themselves. Sarsamon Tirasian had capitalized on Horsebutt the Enemy’s campaign to seize the reins in truth, earning the enmity of his former sponsors—with the exception of Calderaas, which was the largest target of the Enemy’s depredations. The old Sultana, rather than choking on her pride, had thrown full and unconditional support behind House Tirasian and received it in turn, a policy her heirs had kept up.

The Sultanate being one of the Silver Throne’s closest political allies, Calderaas enjoyed more autonomy than any Imperial province save Viridill. The Imperial government didn’t operate as a distinct entity here; the Sultana was the Imperial governor, and all Tiraan business was conducted from her palace, by her hand. Even the local Army garrisons were positioned in fortresses outside the city, with only a single detachment holding the Royal Palace and another the city walls.

Noon found Trissiny standing in front of the local shrine to Eserion, consisting of a pool in which coins glinted in the sun, sourly munching her cinnamon bread and coming to the conclusion that she had taken completely the wrong approach, here. Calderaas had been heavily Avenist since before the Imperial period, and the entire Aldarasi family had attended Last Rock University since it was founded. She should have showed up in full armor, riding Arjen, and requested an audience with the Sultana.

No sooner had she made up her mind to go do exactly that than someone loudly and pointedly cleared his throat behind her.

Trissiny turned, unhurried, to find herself confronted by a truly enormous man with an iron-studded cudgel hanging from his belt. Two more obvious enforcers flanked him, a man and a woman—both smaller, and wearing holstered wands. All of them, for now, kept their hands conspicuously away from their weapons.

“Well, hi there,” Trissiny said mildly. What now?

“Hello, Thorn,” the big man replied, in an unexpectedly high-pitched voice for so burly a man. “Welcome to Calderaas.”

“Thanks,” she said, putting on a polite little smile. “It seems you have me at a disadvantage…?”

“And I think we both know that’s the only advantage I’ve got here,” he said, polite but making no secret of his unhappiness. That put Trissiny on alert. True, these three posed little physical threat to her, but there was no reason they should know that, unless… “The Boss wants to talk to you. Now.”

The Boss was in Tiraas. The local ringleader’s correct title would be Underboss. Something told her that pointing that out wouldn’t make this conversation any friendlier.

“That’s the best news I’ve had all morning,” Trissiny said, deliberately smiling harder. “I would love to talk with the Boss. Please, lead on.”

“Ringer,” the big fellow said curtly, directing himself to the woman at his right. She immediately opened her mouth to protest, then closed it at receiving a furious scowl from him. Hunching her shoulders in displeasure, she slouched past Trissiny with poor grace, one hand now hovering near her wand. At the big man’s gesture, she followed the woman, and the other two fell into step behind her. The formation indicated they perceived a threat here; the posture and nervous gait of the woman in the lead suggested she half-expected to be attacked from behind at any moment.

Oh, yes, they knew who she was—that, or had been told she was something even more dangerous than a paladin. Trissiny was leaning toward the first option, since they were at least treating her with a modicum of respect. That also explained why the local Underboss would summon her; they probably wanted an explanation for her presence and intentions.

While she had been about to give up using the Guild as an angle, she hadn’t been lying that this was a very positive development. The Underboss of Calderaas would be a great help, especially if she didn’t need to play coy with them about her identity. If, of course, they were inclined to be helpful. There was a lot a hostile Guild leader could do to make her life difficult if that was their intention.

She was escorted past the shrine and to a short flight of stairs which led up to an inconspicuous door in the large structure that predominated this end of the area encircled by the Black Market. By its entrance it might have been a slightly shabby townhouse, though it was too large. Trissiny deliberately refrained from guessing what she was walking into; uninformed theorizing could fog the mind and impair actual observation, according to her Eserite teachers.

Somebody emitted a sudden, loud laugh across the street, and the woman leading the way up the stairs jumped forward, spinning to fix Trissiny with a suspicious glare. Behind her, one of the men stifled a snicker.

“I’m not going to stab you or anything,” Trissiny said gently.

That didn’t seem to improve Ringer’s mood; she narrowed her eyes. “Do you think you’re funny, Thorn?”

“Uh…no,” Trissiny said honestly. “Witty banter isn’t one of my gifts. Trying it just ends with me embarrassed, usually. I literally meant I’m not going to stab you.”

“Enough, Ringer,” the big guy said quellingly. “Go on, up to the Boss.”

Muttering rebelliously, Ringer turned back around and carried on up the stairs. At the top she opened the door and ducked through quickly, leaving Trissiny to follow.

She wasn’t given much time to take in the slightly dilapidated entry hall before being ushered up another flight of stairs. This place was laid out like a tenement or office building, with a stairwell in front and halls with stained and torn carpet leading away from each landing, lined with doors. There were fairy lamps, but spaced widely enough to leave general dimness and patterns of shadow.

They escorted her up four stories, down a hall to an intersection lined on one side by windows looking out over the Market. Opposite those was a single wooden door, more ornately carved than the rest in this building, flanked by once-fine but now slightly shabby couches. Upon their arrival, the apparent leader of this little troupe finally took pity on Ringer and stepped forward to rap on the door himself.

“Yes?” The voice from within, slightly muffled, was clearly feminine.

“It’s me, Boss,” he said. “Thorn’s here.”

“Well, send her in, send her in!”

He turned the latch and pushed it open, then stepped aside, nodding to her.

“Thank you,” Trissiny said politely, then deliberately nodded to Ringer, too. This earned her only a suspicious glare. With a soft sigh, she passed through the door.

“Be a dear and kick that shut, would you?” said the apparent Underboss of the Calderaan Guild, standing with her back to Trissiny. “No sense carrying on private business out in front of everybody.”

Rather than kicking it, Trissiny carefully pushed the door shut, while studying her new environs. It was an office, oval in shape with the entrance at a narrow end; there was a desk at the far side, but nearer at hand an arrangement of low couches, end tables, and comfortable chairs which seemed to encourage casual gathering. The walls were totally lined with bookshelves, all well-laden with a substantial library, and from the apex of the domed ceiling hung a chandelier which bristled with small fairy lamps in crystal settings. It more resembled a rich person’s private study than a thief’s office.

“Welcome to my little lair,” said the Boss, turning around and offering Trissiny both a smile and a glass of what she had just finished pouring. “I am Cardassa Araadia, but you can call me Velvet. Here, I know it’s a little early in the day, but I think you’ll enjoy this. It’s an elven vintage—hard to come by, but lighter and sweeter than most domestic wines.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Trissiny said carefully, “but I don’t drink.”

Velvet hesitated in the act of extending the glass of pinkish wine to her, then sighed softly. “Ah. Of course you don’t. Well, live and learn, I suppose.” Setting the glass on the desk behind her, she took a sip from the other one she had poured. She was a surprisingly diminutive woman, no more than shoulder-high on Trissiny, with hair as much salt as pepper but a face showing only the faintest lines around her eyes. Her clothing was clearly tailored, and not only because it was cut to flatter her figure; she had commissioned what would be considered a men’s suit had it not been made of colorfully embroidered silk like a noblewoman’s gown.

“Any relation to House Araadia?” Trissiny asked quickly, as much to steer attention away from her refusal of the drink as because she cared.

“Not that they’ll acknowledge it any longer, but yes,” Velvet said with a mischievous little smile. “I’m not actually disowned, either. Local aristocrats try not to provoke us too directly—right up until they do. In fact, there’s a veritable river of noble blood flowing through the Black Market. A lot of the people who are most sick of the Houses and their bullshit were raised by some of them. I understand you were trained alongside most of the next generation of House Sakhavenid, yourself.”

Well, if she hadn’t been sure already that her identity was known here, that confirmed it.

“Acquaintances of yours?” Trissiny inquired politely, refusing to rise to the bait.

Velvet grimaced around another sip of elven wine. “Sakhavenid? Hardly. They’re a tiny backwater House from rural Mathena; my relatives would dismiss them as jumped-up farmers. That’s neither here nor there. The Thieves’ Guild isn’t a very centralized organization, for obvious reasons, but there is a degree of communication among its chapters. Things the Boss in Tiraas makes sure his Underbosses know of. For example, there are certain tags we’re told to watch for, as the person in question is one who a local boss will want to be aware of when they show up at our doorstep. You had better believe Thorn is one of those.”

“Ah,” Trissiny said with mild chagrin. “That answers my next several questions. Good to know. It would have been nice to know before now,” she added irritably. “I could have spared us both some time and come right here.”

“Now, where’s the fun in that?” Velvet’s expression did not match her playful tone, now. “I like having a little time to watch what you do before having to demand to know, in person, what the hell you’re up to in my city. Especially since you’ve been floating around my Market for the last hour, asking pointed questions about the Imperial presence in Calderaas. Whether Imperial Intelligence or the Azure Corps has a local office. Where the Empire might be keeping important prisoners. Whether there’s been friction between the government and the cults. That paints an interesting picture, Thorn. I can’t quite make it out, but I’m starting to get the impression that when I do, I am not going to be happy.” She set the wineglass down on her desk hard enough that the remaining wine sloshed over the lip.

“That was fast,” Trissiny said, impressed in spite of herself. “You’re really on top of the news here.”

“That’s why I’m in charge,” Velvet said flatly, “and I’m letting that pass because you are known to be more likely to tell someone off than flatter them. Embrace that instinct, Thorn; my ego can take a pounding, but I have a special stiletto for people who try to butter me up. What the fuck are you doing in Calderaas, and how much of a mess am I going to have to clean up when you’re done with it?”

She hesitated barely a moment before answering. “Well. As you’ve probably surmised, it’s paladin business. I am on a mission given to me by Vesk.”

Velvet did not react overtly to this news. “Are you the Hand of Vesk, now, too? You’re really branching out, girl.”

“Vesk is a troublemaker,” Trissiny said bluntly. “Alone among the gods of the Pantheon I would probably decline one of his requests. But apparently, I am the last paladin he approached with this. According to Vesk, both the Hands of Omnu and Vidius are also in Calderaas, and have fallen afoul of the Empire somehow in the process of fulfilling his quest. He claims they are being held in Imperial custody, in secret. I am here to get them out. With that done…I’ll consider whether I want to go chasing Vesk’s fairy tales. Right now I’m leaning heavily toward no.”

The Underboss narrowed her eyes. “That’s the daffiest pack of lies I’ve ever heard. The Empire, holding paladins against their will? Omnu may be an old softy, but Vidius would personally kick down the Emperor’s door.”

“You see my problem,” Trissiny replied, nodding. “On the one hand, I have no less than a god telling me this; it’s not as if I can just brush him off. On the other…this is crazy nonsense. Something is going on here, and the only thing I can be sure of is that I haven’t been accurately told what. Hence my discreet approach, and attempt to gather information via the Guild before acting. Something’s seriously fishy about all of this. It’s not a situation in which I want to charge around swinging my sword.”

“Well, praise whichever of the old bastards is listening that you have that much restraint,” Velvet muttered. “This’ll teach me to complain about the nobles; I do not need the fucking gods playing checkers with my city as a game board. All right, let’s back up. What exactly did Vesk want you—”

A sharp knock came at the door, and Velvet broke off, her nostrils flaring in irritation. “I hope this is very important,” she called.

The door opened slightly, and the large man who had been sent to collect Trissiny leaned his head in. “Uh, I dunno about important, Boss, but… It seemed pretty relevant to your current business. We’ve got a couple guys out here who were trying to break into the place.”

Very slowly, Velvet blinked her eyes, twice. “…I’m sorry, Rooter, I seem to have gone momentarily deaf. Or perhaps insane. I could’ve sworn you just told me that somebody was trying to break in to the headquarters of the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Uh, yeah, Boss. That’s why I thought you’d wanna know. I can knock heads on the street just fine, but what-the-fuck weirdness is your department.”

The Underboss rubbed her eyes with both fists. “Just who are these assholes? Please tell me they’re not Guild.”

“Never saw ’em before.”

Velvet looked accusingly at Trissiny. “Second piece of impossibility I’ve heard in the last two minutes. Are you going to pitch this to me as a coincidence?”

“Hey, I came here alone,” Trissiny said, holding up her hands. “I don’t know of anybody who’d—” She broke off suddenly, eyes widening.

“Yep, I know that look,” Velvet said grimly. “There’s somebody suddenly realizing how they screwed up. Spit it out, Thorn.”

“Um.” Trissiny turned to address Rooter, whose face was still peeking in around the door. “Is one of these guys a skinny blonde fellow with glasses, accompanied by a fire elemental shaped like a rat?”

“Huh?” He frowned at her. “Hell, no, they’re just a couple of galoots, look like factory workers. If there was magic involved that’d’ve been the first thing I said.”

“Well, all right then,” she said with relief, turning back to Velvet. “They’re not mine.”

“Actually, they are,” Rooter said.

“What?” Trissiny exclaimed. Velvet just rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, they say they came here to rescue you.”

“Nobody who knows who I am would think I need rescuing,” she snapped. “Especially from the Guild!”

“All right, this is just a waste of time, now,” Velvet said curtly, striding forward. She brushed past Trissiny and yanked the door open, causing Rooter to beat a hasty retreat out of the doorway. “Spit it out! Who the fuck do you think you are and what’s broken in your head that made you think sneaking in here was a good idea?”

“Ain’t tellin’ you shit!” a man’s voice squalled from the corridor outside, immediately followed by a thump, a yelp of pain, and the sound of an abortive scuffle.

Trissiny slipped out and carefully squeezed around Velvet, studying the scene. Ringer and the other enforcer were present, standing guard over two young men who were kneeling in the middle of the hall with their hands bound behind them. Both were, as Rooter had said, dressed rather like factory laborers, in denim overalls over flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and mud-stained boots. One wore a battered cowboy hat; the other, who had apparently just been struck, was currently bare-headed, but a similar hat lay on the floor a few feet away.

“There you are!” the one not currently recovering from having his head smacked exclaimed. “It’s okay, miss, we was sent here to rescue you!”

“Well?” Velvet drawled, folding her arms and shooting Trissiny a look. “Care to bring me up to speed?”

“I have no idea who these are,” Trissiny said honestly, staring at the two in puzzlement.

“Then this is all pointless,” Velvet said dismissively. “Take these two losers outside, beat ’em purple and throw them in the canal. If you ever see either of them in the Market again, break their arms.”

“WAIT!” squawked the hatless man, straightening up with some apparent difficulty. “Waitwaitwait just a sec! Ma’am, you gotta remember us! It was two years ago, we met in the Rail station!”

Trissiny suddenly squinted, taking a step forward to peer more closely at him. “…hang on.”

Velvet held up a hand to forestall Ringer, who had clearly been about to follow her orders.

“Actually,” Trissiny said slowly, “…yes. I do recognize you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the other man said, nodding frantically. “I’m Ezekiel, an’ this here’s my brother Jebediah—”

“Jenkins,” she finished.

“Yes!” Jebediah crowed, then elbowed his brother as best he could with his arms tied. “See! I told you it was her! Didn’t I tell you?”

“Boy, you have got to learn when not to run your mouth,” Ezekiel muttered. “Always, is when, just so’s ya know.”

“So,” Velvet said with mounting impatience, “I take it you don’t want these two roughed up?”

“Oh, on the contrary,” Trissiny said flatly. “Rooter, may I borrow your cudgel?”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was first to move when the caravan slowed to a stop next to Platform Ten. Trissiny watched the procedure with interest; she had seen it at the much smaller Rail depot in Trasio, but it remained impressive. The Rail itself, a single raised line on spokes like a bannister that extended into the distance in both directions, began to hum and glow arcane blue with the caravan’s approach. The train that arrived to take her on to Last Rock had eight passenger cars, twice the size of the one which had brought her here. They looked the same, though, tiny bits of glass and steel looking like a single squared tube with so many in a line. This caravan also had four larger, boxy cargo wagons affixed after the passenger cars, and another angular enchanter’s post behind that to match the one at the front. She wondered if the added weight meant it needed a second enchanter to keep it going.

Trissiny edged back from the Rail along with the other passengers as lightning sparked along the rim of the platform with the energy of the caravan halting itself. The tiny hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood upright.

She stood back to let the passengers disembark, most of them looking as stiff and disoriented as she had after her previous Rail ride, then moved quickly to claim her seat in the frontmost car, just behind the enchanter’s post. Nobody complained or tried to slip in ahead of her. Trissiny supposed it was all right to benefit from a healthy respect for paladins, as long as she wasn’t intimidating people on purpose. If folks thought the Hand of Avei might smite them for pushing in line ahead of her, well, there wasn’t much she could do about that, aside from proving them wrong.

She stowed her trunk under the seat as she’d been shown on the last caravan, strapping it in tightly with the frayed arrangement of leather thongs and buckles provided, then unslung her shield and laid it on the bench beside her, before taking her seat. This car might have been a duplicate of the other, except that she had it to herself. The padded benches were wide enough to seat three without much discomfort; she took the one facing the front, reasoning that it would diminish the dizzying terror of the Rail ride not to have to do it backward. It was like being in a little glass bubble, and she enjoyed the solitude after the crowded platform.

People weren’t hurrying to join her, but that would probably only last until someone came along who hadn’t seen the paladin duck in here. She enjoyed the breather while it lasted, literally. Proper breathing was essential to both combat form and meditation, and Trissiny had been storing her gathering tension in her chest. The caravan was parked for several long minutes, presumably while the large cargo cars in the rear were loaded and/or unloaded, and she took full advantage of the time to breathe slowly and evenly, without slipping into full meditation.

Thus, she was calm enough not to be overly perturbed when a man entered her car.

“Good day!” he said cheerily, straightening. He was an older gentleman, well-dressed and very round about the middle, with a jowly face accentuated by bushy, steel-colored sideburns. “Ah, a Sister! Excellent, I was just wondering why a pretty girl was sitting alone in a car. Usually the lads would be all over you. Don’t mind if I share, do you? It’s filling up back there, and a man of my great physical fitness is less welcome where the seats must be squeezed into.” He chortled, patting his plump belly.

“The caravan is open to all,” she said politely, forcing a smile. “Please, be welcome.” It was so formal as to be stilted, but she couldn’t just up and say she didn’t mind his company. Avei frowned upon lies, even little social ones.

“Many thanks, my dear, many thanks.” He grunted as he lowered himself onto the bench opposite her, sliding over so as to grip the handhold bolted to the wall of the caravan. “Whoof! As often as I ride these things, you’d think I’d grow accustomed to the acrobatics it takes getting in and out of them. Heywood Paxton, Imperial Surveyor.” He extended a hand to her. “I’m the Emperor’s eyes on the frontier! Of course, the Emperor has more eyes than a nest of spiders, and do please remind me of that if I start to sound like I think I’m important.” His pale eyes twinkled with good humor.

“Trissiny Avelea,” she replied, shaking his hand. His eyes flicked over her and she tensed, but it was nothing like the gaze Jebediah Jenkins had dragged across her. In fact, Mr. Paxton seemed to be looking at her armor, not her body; his eyes darted from bracers to boots to divided leather skirt, without lingering on her breastplate the way too many men did. She saw the moment when he absorbed the fact that her Avenic armor was silver rather than bronze.

“Omnu’s breath,” he exclaimed, settling back in his own seat and regarding her wide-eyed. “Forgive if I’m impertinent, Ms. Avelea, but…would you be a paladin?”

“I am.” She forced a small smile. At least he knew the proper way to address a Sister of Avei. He was the first man she’d met on her journey who did.

“Bless my old soul!” he enthused. “I’d heard that Avei had called a new paladin, but… Well, this is a rare privilege, ma’am! An honor, it truly is. Wait’ll I tell the grandchildren I rode the Rail with a paladin!” He laughed aloud. “Now, you be sure to tell me if I’m bothering you, Ms. Avelea. I do tend to let the old mouth run away with me sometimes.”

“I don’t mind,” she replied, and found that she meant it. Trissiny was not used to men; obviously, she’d been around them before, as the Sisters of Avei were not a cloistered order. But briefly or at a distance, usually; those men who weren’t shy about being around Sisters had been strongly encouraged to keep away from the novices. Still, Heywood Paxton was one of the least menacing individuals she’d ever met.

“And would you be on quest, then?” he asked enthusiastically. “Not that you need pay any mind to old me, of course! I shall gladly shove off if told to. But I’m heading out to Sarasio on the Emperor’s business, and I should be glad of the company, I don’t mind telling you. If there’s any place that could benefit from a taste of Avei’s fist, that’s it for sure.”

“No,” she said with some hesitation, and a small twinge of guilt. “Actually, I’m going to college. At least for now; that was the goddess’s command. I’m sure she has good reason.” Why did she feel the need to explain herself to this stranger? It wasn’t his business; it wasn’t even hers. If Avei chose to send her paladin to university rather than to the battlefield, well, she was entitled. No matter how Trissiny chafed at what felt like a waste of her calling.

“Goodness me, to college? This line is heading straight out of the civilized territories! Nothing but the Golden Sea, tribes of wild elves and a few frontier towns where we’re…ohhh.” His expression cleared and he nodded sagely. “Last Rock, then?”

“Yes, to Professor Tellwyrn’s University. You’ve heard of it?”

“Indeed I have, Ms. Avelea, indeed I have. You don’t last long in my line of work without knowing who all the players in the Great Game are. Omnu’s breath, I should’ve put that together the moment I noticed you in that armor. My brains are getting as droopy as my jowls, I declare.” He grinned at her with such genuine good humor that she had to smile back.

A sharp retort like the crack of a whip resonanted through their little chamber, and the caravan lurched. Then it began smoothly moving forward; Trissiny found herself pressed back into her seat, while Mr. Paxton had to cling to the handbar and surreptitiously brace his leg against the bench beside her to keep from being poured out of his.

“My goodness, they don’t give us much time to get settled, do they?” He grinned cheerily. “I can’t imagine how ticket holders ever manage to get into their cars on time.”

“Ticket holders?”

“Oh, yes,” he explained, “most people must purchase a ticket to ride the Rail; it’s good for only one specific trip, and then you have to buy another to ride again. Laying these Rails isn’t cheap; the Empire has to fund it all somehow!”

“Nobody told me about tickets,” she said in some alarm. They had left the station behind in seconds, and just now were racing past the borders for Calderaas, fast enough that she could barely make out the difference between city and country scenery; it evolved from a grayish blur to a greenish one. And the caravan still accelerated. Paxton’s face was beginning to bead with sweat, from the effort of holding himself in his seat.

“Not to worry, my dear, the Rails are free to Imperial agents and officials of the Church. Which, clearly, includes you!”

“Oh. But…I didn’t even see anyone collecting…that is, none of the guards asked me about…”

“Well, obviously, Station officials know a bit more about the world than the average run of hayseeds who might be riding the Rails. One look at that armor and they’d let you hop into whatever caravan you pleased without so much as a word.”

“Oh,” she said again, now feeling rather guilty. “Oh…I hope I didn’t cheat somebody out of a seat.”

“Nonsense, they never sell enough tickets to fill out a caravan. It leaves some seats open for the likes of us, and if none such come along, well, these things run faster the less weighted down they are. Everybody wins!”

“Except the people who have to pay for passage.”

“Well, I suppose not,” he conceded, his smile fading somewhat, “but then again, if they weren’t paying for tickets, the Rails couldn’t run. Then nobody would have them!”

“It just seems unfair,” she murmured.

“Very little in this world is fair, Ms. Avelea,” he replied. For the first time, the cheer had fled his face, leaving a sober and faraway expression. “May you have better luck than I’ve had finding remedies for it.”

The silence that fell in the compartment was strained and awkward. Trissiny feared little, but was unpracticed at social subtleties; she couldn’t decide whether to avoid Paxton’s eyes or meet them, whether to leave the quiet alone or try to fill it.

He took the dilemma out of her hands moments later, when their acceleration finally leveled off. The Surveyor grunted, settling himself back into his seat now that he didn’t have to brace himself into it. “Whew! Every trip an adventure. You know, the Rail cars servicing the interior provinces have buckled belts on each seat for the passengers to strap themselves in. It seems there’s no budget for upgrading old frontier equipment just yet.”

Trissiny nodded, unsure whether she would prefer that. It would be nice not to be tossed around, but she wasn’t at all certain she’d care to be strapped in, either.

“Oh, here comes the wide arc around the Mirror Lakes,” Mr. Paxton said, peering out the window. “Best brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we’re going to—”

And then the ground whipped out from under them. The caravan curved so sharply to the right that its left wall became the new de facto floor; Paxton was tossed against it with a grunt. Only Trissiny’s trained reflexes saved her from a pummeling. Spinning on the bench, she stuck one foot against the wall and the other on the seat opposite, while grabbing her shield as it tried to fly across the car. It was made to endure much more abuse than being dropped, but it had been a gift from the Goddess herself and Trissiny hated to see it handled disrespectfully.

“Almost!” her fellow traveler cried with a grin. “More than a dozen trips on this line; one day I’ll have that timing down exactly.” She grinned back. The man’s good humor really was infectious.

The car leveled out so abruptly that they were both tossed back in the opposite direction. Paxton slid along his bench, this time very nearly tumbling to the floor; Trissiny managed to pivot in midair, never releasing her hold on her shield, again bracing herself with a foot against the opposite seat.

They blinked and stared at each other, both pale, and then at her boot, which had struck down directly between his legs on the edge of the bench. Had he slid six inches farther, he’d have come to grief on her greave.

“I’m sorry!” she blurted, quickly folding herself back into her own bench.

“Hah, no harm done,” he reassured her, pulling a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and mopping his face. “Though that’s a nearer miss than I usually have before even getting off the caravan!”

“Are they always this bad?”

“Well, depends on the Rail you ride. They try to lay them in the straightest lines possible, but there are some things that cannot be carved through. It’s when the Rail has to dodge around obstacles that we have trouble! But that’s the price we pay for speed. You know, when I first started out in the Emperor’s service, the journey from Calderaas to Last Rock would have been weeks. Now, we should be there within another five minutes, and I’ll be safely to Sarasio not more than fifteen after that.”

“I believe,” Trissiny said, shifting on her seat, “I like that idea of belted seats very much, the more I think about it. Why didn’t they put those into the caravans in the first place?”

“Ah! You see, the enchantments that make these beauties run are still newfangled enough that much of the older generation doesn’t trust them, my dear. When this caravan was built, there was nobody to ride it but soldiers, Imperial agents and adventurers heading to the frontier. You know, the sort of folk who aren’t apt to put up a fuss about their safety or comfort.” He edged toward the opposite wall, getting a good grip on the handlebar and bracing both legs against her bench. “Common folks riding the Rails are a pretty new event, considering, and few enough of them take these outer lines. You’ll want to brace yourself, Ms. Avelea, we’re coming up on the worst stretch of this particular journey.”

She slid her shield against the wall opposite him, sat down on it, gripped the bar and placed a foot against the far bench. Not a moment too soon; the caravan changed course with a wrench that drew a grunt from her, even as it flattened Mr. Paxton against the other wall of the car.

What followed was even worse than her first trip down from the mountainous territory of Viridill. The Rail apparently dodged back and forth through some kind of obstacle course, yanking them first one way and then the other before they had time to compensate. She couldn’t spare the attention to try to study the passing scenery, keeping her arms and legs constantly tense against the forces seeking to toss her about the car. Paxton kept his grip on his handlebar, though at one point lost his seat and was flung full-length across the bench, still clinging to the wall, and only recovered his position upon being shoved back into it. Trissiny quickly lost track of the passage of time; her arms and legs were growing sore, and even her jaw started to ache from the effort of holding it closed. Letting it bounce was a sure way to bite off a chunk of her tongue.

As suddenly as the chaos had begun, it ended. The caravan sailed along in near silence and perfect balance, its two shaken passengers blinking at each other.

“Is it over?” she asked uncertainly.

“For the moment,” he replied, heaving himself back onto the bench with grunt; he’d not managed to avoid a tumble to the floor in the last few moments. “Whew! They really should post warnings; that’s one of the worst stretches in the entire Rail network, you know. Not much else is even half so bad.” He shifted about on his seat, straightening his rumpled clothes.

“What exactly were we dodging around?” She resettled herself, surreptitiously stretching tensed muscles. Trissiny felt a moment of envy for her trunk, safely lashed in below her seat.

“Why, that’s the Green Belt, so they call it. It’s a whole network of elven forests, separated by fairly small stretches of open grassland. Different tribes of elves, you see, and they’d worked out a solution to their border conflicts by making sure they weren’t even in the same forest. All this was long before the Empire, or even any humans living in this area.” He chuckled, dabbing sweat from his face again. “So when the first Surveyors came to find a route for the Rail, they ran into ill luck. Oh, the elves were very polite, as they always are, but dead set against letting the Rail come through any of their woodland. Finally, one poor fool lost patience and told them it would have to be done whether they liked it or not.” He laughed aloud, shaking his head. “As I heard it, they politely told him to invite the Emperor to try it.”

“I’m a little surprised he didn’t,” she replied. “The Empire conquered every other human nation on the continent, after all. Aren’t elves a bit…primitive?”

“Well, yes and no!” He smiled broadly, clearly enjoying his role as storyteller. “They’re not primitive in the sense of lacking magic and sophistication of their own; they just choose to live a little closer to nature than we do. It’s been a long time since Imperial agents chose to mistake the one for the other. For all our new magics and enchantments, the elves are something the Empire is wise not to provoke. Makes for a ghastly muddle, with them living in their own enclaves all across Imperial territory. The Surveyors finally chose to mark off the elven provinces as ‘reserves,’ and leave ’em alone.”

“Hm.” Absently, she ran a hand along the edge of her shield, pondering. “I seldom met any back home, and then only one or two at a time. They seemed rather standoffish, as a rule…”

“Anybody’ll act different traveling in foreign lands than they would at home, surrounded by kinsmen.”

“Professor Tellwyrn is an elf,” Trissiny mused.

“That she is!” Paxton nodded, grinning. “An old one, and one of the most notorious people alive of any race. Not had the pleasure of meeting her myself, and for that I can’t decide if I’m grateful or disappointed. Ah, we’re coming up on the last stretch of our run, Ms. Avelea. Hold tight now!”

She swiftly followed his instruction, but it was not nearly as bad as before. The Rail curved in another long sweep to her right, but this one much more shallow. Trissiny got a good grip on her handle and had no trouble staying seated, though the centrifugal force tried to tug her back across the bench.

“If you crane your neck a bit, Ms. Avelea, you can see your destination! I recommend it, Last Rock is quite a sight from a distance.”

Indeed it was. She had to press her cheek to the glass to manage a good view, but it was worth the minor discomfort. They were long past the hilly region surrounding Calderaas and even the elven forests; here was low, rolling scrubland, fading before her eyes into the Golden Sea up ahead, the huge and very magical stretch of prairie the occupied the heart of the continent. The Empire had encircled it entirely, but the Golden Sea was much larger within than without; some theorized one could travel into it forever, and never reach the other side. It was a territory that could not truly be explored, much less conquered, but the Emperor did the best he could, establishing a perimeter of forts and settlements along its frontier. One of these was the tiny town of Last Rock.

The town itself was a small and rather sad cluster of buildings dwarfed by the mountain from which it drew its name; rising straight up from the plain with not so much as a hill within sight, the Rock itself was tall enough to be taken seriously in most mountain ranges, and seemed utterly colossal in its flat environs. Wedge-shaped, it formed a rising prow cutting into the Golden Sea itself, falling sharply in rocky cliffs from its highest edges, but sloping up gently from the other side, in an incline that was no steeper than the average staircase. It resembled a long, narrow plateau tilted up with one edge sunk into the ground.

Now, a path ran from the town of Last Rock up toward its peak, and the upper quarter of the mountain was covered with the spires and terraces of the University. Her home for the next four years.

Trissiny eased back into her seat, against the force of the curve. They had already drawn too close for her to get a solid look at anything, and she didn’t care to look like an overeager child with her face mashed against the glass.

“Not bad, is it?” her seatmate said with a grin. “Ah, the things there are to see along this Frontier. And all over the Empire, for that matter…well, no rush. I expect you of all people will become plenty acquainted with it in time.”

“I expect so,” she murmured. As the curve of the Rail leveled out, she slid along her bench away from him, gripped her shield in one hand and braced both feet against the seat opposite. As if on cue, the caravan decelerated sharply, seeking to pitch her face-first against the front wall.

Trissiny didn’t let out her breath until the caravan finally came to a full stop with a muted squeal. Paxton sighed in unison with her, again straightening his coat. “Well, I believe this is your stop, ma’am. May I just say again that it has been an honor?”

“I appreciate your company,” she replied, this time with a genuine smile. “And the information.”

“Oh, pish tosh, just an old man’s ramblings about all the things he’s seen. Trust me, you’d find it much less interesting if you had to endure it more than once.”

She bent to unfasten her trunk and pull it out from under the seat, exchanging a grin with him one more time as she slung her shield onto her back.

“Still…it was a much better journey than the last one. May I offer you a blessing Mr. Paxton?”

His grin vanished at once into a nearly awestruck expression. “Oh! Well, that is…if—if you feel it’s… I mean, I’d be honored.”

Smiling, Trissiny reached across the narrow compartment to place a hand on his brow, not minding the sweat in his hair. A soft golden glow rose about them, seemingly from the air itself; she felt her own aches washing away in proximity to the divine power, though it was merely being channeled through her, and into the man beneath her palm.

“Peace and Justice be upon you, friend,” she intoned softly, hearing the resonance in her voice of the Goddess echoing, “and Avei watch your path.”

Trissiny let her hand fall, enjoying the serenity that always came in the aftermath of calling on Avei. Heywood Paxton’s face held an expression of almost childlike wonder.

“I…I swear you took ten years off me. Ms. Avelea, I don’t know how to…”

“Just be as kind to the next person you travel with, as well,” she replied.

“Oh, that I shall. This has been a real gift, ma’am… A very rare privilege.” He trailed off, seeming at a loss for words for once.

With a final smile at him, Trissiny pushed open the compartment door and stepped out onto the platform of Last Rock.

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