Tag Archives: Jenell Covrin

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Such a procession drew attention and created a ripple of rumor that quickly swept across the city. It was early afternoon by the time they reached the wealthy district in which the Imperial Casino lay, and by that point, the news of their coming had preceded them. Well-dressed men and women had gathered on the sidewalks to stare, but mostly had the decency to remove their hats and lower their eyes in respect as the group passed. The street was also thronged with silent, grim-faced thieves of the Guild, waiting.

Trissiny walked in the front in full armor, her expression closed and eyes straight ahead, leading her silver-clad warhorse by his reins. Arjen followed with his own head lowered, surrounded by four young people, two men and two women. Only Schwartz stood out visibly, in his Salyrite robes and with Meesie riding on his shoulder. He, Tallie, and the Sakhavenid siblings kept pace with Arjen, each with one steadying hand on the carefully-wrapped bundle lying across the huge horse’s saddle. Though fully swathed, it apparent even without the presence of obvious pallbearers that it was a body.

Four Silver Legionnaires followed them, in uniform but helmetless and conspicuously absent their weapons, shivering in the winter air and looking a great deal more nervous than Legionnaires usually did in public. At the end of the procession walked a fifth soldier: Covrin had her helmet on, shield in hand, and lance held menacingly as if she intended to prod the woman in front of her at the slightest provocation. Beside her, also bare-headed and with an expression promising retribution, was Bishop Syrinx, her golden eagle-wrought sword drawn and ready.

The broad avenue terminated in a broad cul-de-sac before the steps of the Casino itself, the space now lined with quiet onlookers. Dozens of civilians murmured and jostled each other to stare, most of them in the expensive attire of the Casino’s usual clientele, but none tried to push past the perimeter of cold-faced Guild thieves enforcing a clear area in front of the steps.

Everyone stood where they were as Trissiny led the group straight toward the front doors of the Casino, with one exception. She had been standing on the top stair, watching up the street, and now as they approached, Style strode down and through the crowd. Only thieves had placed themselves in front of the steps, and so nobody had to be pushed bodily out of her way. They all knew better than to impede her.

Trissiny finally came to a stop near the center of the plaza. Style strode right up to and then past her, seeming not to notice anyone standing there and not the least bit impressed by the divine warhorse. Darius yielded his position and she came right up to Arjen’s side.

All muttering and coughing had utterly ceased among the onlookers by the time Style slipped her brawny arms, bare even in the cold, under Ross’s body and lifted him from the horse’s back. Despite his size, she did it with no apparent effort, but it was not her physical strength that held the watching enforcers silent. Everyone knew Style’s capacity for brute power, but rarely had they seen the towering chief enforcer’s face as it was now, crumpled with pain as if she might begin weeping any second.

The Hand of Avei stood to the side, head lowered, while Style carefully laid Ross upon the paving stones, and with amazing gentleness, folded back the white quilt with which they had covered him to reveal his face. He was already too pale to be merely sleeping.

At no apparent signal, every Eserite ringing the plaza silently raised their right fist defiantly to the sky.

“Lest the mighty grow complacent.” Lore’s voice was not raised—in fact, he spoke barely above a murmur from the top of the Casino’s steps. In the silence, though, he was clearly heard by all present. “Be warned: a thief can die, but the fight cannot.”

“WE ARE STILL HERE.”

Hundreds of voices, even in a respectfully soft tone, were deafening when they spoke in unison. The sounded from the enforcers circling the plaza, from the alleys and windows and rooftops all around. At this, finally, some of the civilian watchers began shuffling away, trying carefully to move up the street from the casino without creating a disruption that might draw attention. These were rich people, the kind the Thieves’ Guild existed to humble. It was one thing to play with danger by idling in the thieves’ own casino; being surrounded by the Guild in this mood was a horse of a different color.

Several enforcers came closer, forming a smaller, less precise ring around the group—not so much delineating space as making it plain by their presence, turned outward to stare flatly at the crowd, that no one was welcome to approach. Around them, though some stubborn rubberneckers remained to gawk, the crowd was beginning to stream away with enough speed that its sounds quickly grew loud enough to cover conversation. They were encouraged along by thieves turning from the scene in the middle of the plaza to give pointed looks at those who remained, several toying idly with weapons.

Style carefully folded the quilt back over Ross’s face. Still kneeling over him, she paused for a long moment to draw two steadying breaths before straightening back up to her full, intimidating height.

“All right,” the chief enforcer said simply. “Who did it?”

She turned to stare at the four disarmed Legionnaires, all of whom drew closer together in alarm and would have tried to back away had Covrin not deliberately planted the tip of her lance against the back of the sergeant’s breastplate.

“None of them,” Trissiny said evenly. “The murderer preferred death to justice. I…failed to apprehend her. That’s on me.”

“I’ll assume that’s the armor talking,” Style said shortly. “Avenist justice may be complicated, but as far at the Guild is concerned, if you killed the killer, that’s settled. Now I want to know what role this lot played, and why you brought them to me.”

“These are accomplices,” Trissiny said, turning to give the four a cold look. “They are guilty of abducting Ross, and also Schwartz here, but none of them did him any harm beyond that. Private Ulster, there, broke from them and raised steel on her comrades when Ross was shot. I don’t think they wanted anything to do with murder, and that one at least had the spine to take a stand, even if it was too late to be useful. We brought them here because they need to be debriefed and held until the Imperial investigators rounding up this conspiracy can finish their work. And right now, the Sisterhood of Avei is not trustworthy. I don’t want any more fish slipping the net before Commander Rouvad gets her house in order.”

“Well, you heard the General.” Boss Tricks materialized from the crowd as if he had teleported, pacing up to the group with an uncharacteristically dark expression. “We’ve got some guests, people. See that they’re comfortable.”

Several of the surrounding enforcers stepped forward, two hefting cudgels and Grip, at their head, toying pointedly with a long knife. The soldiers drew into an even tighter knot, eyes widening, and the sergeant finally found her voice.

“Now, just a minute here. High Commander Rouvad specifically said Legionnaires aren’t to be held by—”

Trissiny crossed to them with astonishing speed for someone in armor, her sword clearing her scabbard as she came; Schwartz barely got out of her way fast enough to avoid being run over. Sergeant Raathi broke off with an undignified squeak when the edge of the paladin’s blade came to rest against her throat.

“Rouvad,” Trissiny said icily, “is not here. I am. If I were to take your head off your shoulders right now, Sergeant, who among those present do you think will raise a whisper of complaint?”

Bishop Syrinx twirled her own sword, the flash of motion intended to catch Raathi’s attention, then deliberately sheathed the weapon, folded her arms, and smirked. Raathi’s throat moved abortively, as if she had started to swallow and then changed her mind.

“You will cooperate with the Guild,” Trissiny continued after enough of a pause had stretched out to make her point plain. “You will answer any questions you are asked and cause no trouble, and if I receive a favorable report of your conduct, I will make certain it’s considered at your trial. Do otherwise and I won’t do anything at all, and you can learn for yourself how far Commander Rouvad’s say-so goes among the Thieves’ Guild. Do I make myself plain?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trissiny held her gaze for a moment longer before lowering the sword and turning her back dismissively on the four. “Boss, I’m trusting that they won’t be mistreated here.”

“No call for that, I don’t think,” Tricks said, studying the armored women dispassionately. “Long as they do what’s asked of ’em, it’s better for the whole business if they have no cause to complain about their treatment when it’s time for trials and sentencing. We do know a thing or two about handling the justice system, after all. In fact, we can consider that my official verdict on the matter.” The Boss raised his voice and subtly shifted to direct his words to the crowd at large. “The law is already closing in on this conspiracy, and seems to have most of ’em in hand. If it does so, fine; the Guild won’t contest the right of way with the Empire. But. These bastards have killed one of our own—an apprentice. There will be no more mercy offered. I officially no longer give a shit about interfaith procedure. Any member of this conspiracy who is not safely in Imperial custody by sunset will be found hanging in the doorway of their own temple by dawn. Be they altar boys or High Commanders, I don’t care. Eserite blood is never the last to be spilled. I have spoken.”

He received a round of sharp nods, and almost every Guild thief present who was not already moving to escort the four Legionnaires into the Casino turned and began melting away into the shadows and alleyways.

“Why have I got the strangest fucking feeling,” Style said grimly, folding her arms, “that you kids aren’t done making a goddamn mess.”

Darius cleared his throat. “Style, none of us are in any mood. If you even suggest what happened to Ross is our fault, I’m gonna come over there and smack you one.”

She raised her eyebrows fractionally. “Boy, you have to know I can demolish you with one hand.”

“I surely do, and I’ll do it anyway.”

“The defiance is good, Darius, but keep it pointed where it deserves,” Tricks said firmly. “No infighting, not right now. Kids, I expect great things from all of you, and believe me, I know what it feels like to want retribution. You all know our doctrine of revenge, though.”

“You…have a doctrine for that?” Schwartz asked hesitantly.

“Revenge should only be sought,” Tallie recited in a quiet monotone, “if it serves both a strategic and personal goal. Strategic in that it will dissuade the target or others from committing more actions that demand retaliation. Personal in that the target must understand by whom and for what they are being punished, and be unable to prevent their comeuppance, because only in that circumstance will it bring satisfaction.”

“That is disturbingly insightful,” he muttered.

“And the killer is dead,” Tricks stated, glancing at Trissiny. “which takes that off the table. The people responsible for the whole debacle are being rounded up by far more effective agents than you. This is not a situation where you can help.”

“Not more effective than her,” Tallie said defiantly, also turning to Trissiny.

“And,” Layla added, “it seems the one person most responsible is in no position to be rounded up.”

Tricks shot a look at Syrinx, who still had her arms folded and was now listening without expression.

“If you kids are thinking of trying to rough up the Archpope, so help me I will put you all in cells until you cool down. I don’t care whose Hand any of you are.”

Arjen turned to stare at him, laying his ears back, which the Boss ignored.

“Excuse me, I’m not even in your cult,” Schwartz said testily.

“I think it’s pretty significant we didn’t even have to say who we’re all talking about,” Tallie said dryly.

“And no,” Trissiny added, “no one’s talking about going to the Cathedral and attacking Justinian. No one here is stupid enough to think that would work.”

“Yo.” Darius raised his hand. “Totally that stupid, for the record. That’s why I let my baby sister tag along all the time, she’s the plan person.”

“I take full credit for his survival to date,” Layla said primly.

“It seems,” Trissiny continued, “the events of this week in Tiraas are just one part of something that has parallels in Last Rock and Puna Dara. While Justinian’s name has been brought up a lot, the truth is we haven’t absolute proof that he is the one orchestrating all this behind the scenes. Which means that both justice and revenge can be best sought without attacking him directly. Whoever is responsible for this, I mean to go make certain they get nothing they want today, and that they see who wrecked their careful plans.”

Style swelled like a bullfrog, but then released the air in a heavy sigh. “And so you’re thinking of taking my apprentices and charging off to Last Rock to help your little adventurer friends?”

“She’s not taking us anywhere,” Tallie stated, glaring at her. “We’re going with. You can dish out whatever punishment you want when we get back, Style, but this is fucking well happening. Live with it.”

“And no,” Trissiny said before Style could retort. “Last Rock is a monster that eats overweening fools; anybody who wants to try their luck with Tellwyrn and my classmates is welcome to have at it. But Puna Dara is not prepared for the kinds of trouble someone like Justinian can unleash, and I have a good friend who will never forgive me if I turn my back on the Punaji when they need help. That is where I’m going. And as far as I’m concerned, everyone here has the right to come if they choose to exercise it.”

“I swear,” Style muttered, shaking her head. “A thorn in my ass to the very end.”

“You realize, kid,” Tricks said quietly, “that not everybody is secretly a paladin. The kind of trouble that you exist to stamp down gets regular people killed. How many friends are you looking to lose today?”

“If you can persuade them not to come,” she whispered, “do. Please.”

“We’ve had this out already,” Tallie said, much more firmly. “This isn’t the big bad paladin ordering us to fight. We’re Guild, Boss; nobody orders us to do jack shit.”

Style cleared her throat pointedly.

“What’re you grunting about?” Darius snorted. “It’s true and you know it. You complain about it often enough.”

“Historically speaking,” Layla added, “paladins do not operate alone; they have usually been the focus of adventurer teams. Three thieves and a witch makes for pretty good backup, I’d say.”

“Apprentice thieves!” Style grated.

Tricks shook his head, but held up a hand. “Technically, I do have the prerogative to forbid you from going.” He gave Style a long, pensive look. “But…we’re not big on technicalities here, are we?”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” she said incredulously.

“A great doom is coming,” the Boss murmured. “Shit’s going down, Style. I’ve heard from the Big Guy himself about our pet paladin, here. The word is to give her space to do what she wants, unless she gets into something we specifically cannot support. This is Guild retribution of exactly the kind our very few doctrines support. If any thieves want to have her back, apprentice or no… They’re cleared to go.”

Style turned her back, cursing monotonously under her breath.

“But you,” Tricks said grimly to Trissiny, “just keep in mind that raising a fist in defiance is the why but not the how of Eserion’s people. You assess the situation, you act with strategy, and you don’t take needless risks with our people’s lives.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” she replied, “but I appreciate that you did, nonetheless. I don’t plan to lose anybody else, today.”

“Yeah?” he shot back. “Did you plan to lose Ross?”

“Okay, that was not necessary,” Schwartz snapped. Meesie hopped onto his head and chittered angry agreement.

“It’s not wrong, though,” Trissiny said quietly. “Anything could happen. In war, people die.”

“You gotta trust us on this, Boss,” Tallie said, wearing a grim little smile. “I’ve been thinking on it all the way over. The biggest advantage of having our very own paladin isn’t even her capacity to break shit: it’s that with her riding at the head, nobody’ll even see us coming.”

Tricks heaved a sigh, rolling his eyes. “She said, in the middle of the street.”

That prompted a round of winces and glances around. Actually his concern might have been overstated; most of the onlookers had left, either voluntarily or shooed away by enforcers, and nobody who remained was within earshot. What was left of the crowd was again generating enough typical city noise to cover their conversation.

“Hey, give her a break,” Darius said reasonably. “After all, we’re just apprentices.”


“How’s it look out there, Sanrachi?” one of the gathered soldiers asked merrily as their soaking-wet comrade entered the barracks.

“Fucking glorious,” she replied with the same good cheer, settling onto one of the benches close to the fireplace and picking up a rag from the supplies laid out there. She began removing, drying and oiling her gear as she continued, not seeming to mind the rainwater that plastered her own clothes and hair. “It’s one of Naphthene’s own rages out there. I can’t believe you lazy sods are sitting around in here instead of out playing in the rain.”

“Yeah, well, you can go back out when your shift is over,” the lieutenant presently in charge said, looking up from his book and raising an eyebrow. “We’re all on standby. If that means missing a really good blow, well, life’s hard.”

“Not me!” another man called. “I haven’t missed a really good blow since I met Apta’s—”

“Yeah, yeah, my sister’s a whore, we’ve all heard it,” a fellow soldier grunted, tossing a boot at him without raising his attention from his game of chess. “You need some new material.”

The small barracks was on the second floor of the Rock’s southern gatehouse, set inside the massive outer wall of the fortress itself. This was not the main troop housing, but served as a common area where soldiers stationed on gate watch gathered. At times like this, the policy was to have enough troops on the ramparts to keep watch over the city, but more in reserve below not being distracted and tired out by having to remain alert in the middle of a storm. As much as Punaji enjoyed stormy weather as a rule, manning the top of a wall during a tropical gale as fierce as the one now raging could wear a person out. Sanrachi’s replacement had already gone above to relieve her, and another swap would take place in half an hour. With the weather this bad, the twelve soldiers patrolling the gatehouse’s towers would be rotated constantly, so there was always someone with fresh eyes on the city.

In theory, the Rock should have nothing to fear from the people of Puna Dara, but the very fact of the Punaji affinity for storms meant that watchers on the walls could not trust the weather alone to keep the gates clear, as might be the practice elsewhere.

“All quiet out there?” the lieutenant asked, then had to pause for a particularly loud clap of thunder. “…you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sanrachi said, grinning. “The usual. Some folks out in the street, but not a sign of these Rust bastards. I guess their name’s not a complete coincidence, huh? They seem shy about getting wet. So, uh…” She glanced curiously at some of the new arrivals, whose silver armor stood out strikingly among the Punaji uniforms. “What brings you out here, Sisters? I heard you were honored guests of the royal family.”

“That’s the theory,” Ephanie said lightly, “but we’re letting our LT hog all the honor. Honestly, you know how it is. We all complain about the digs we’re assigned, but put me on plush carpeting and silk sheets and I’m afraid to touch anything. I have no idea which one’s even the shrimp fork.”

“Shrimp fork’s the one you use to stab the shrimp who complains about what fork you’re eating with!” shouted the man who’d made the crack about Apta’s sister, earning a round of guffaws.

“Well, you’re welcome in here,” the lieutenant said, smiling warmly at her. In fact, Ephanie in particular had been the focus of a fair amount of attention from most of the men and several of the women stationed in this gatehouse. “Good company’s always appreciated. We don’t even mind you sharing the rations; we don’t go hungry around here.”

“Aw, we wouldn’t wanna be a burden,” Casey said cheerfully. “That’s why we keep Lang around! Someone so terrible at cards can’t help but make us friends.”

Merry scowled at her, slapping her handful of cards down on the table amid the laughter of the rest of the poker players. Indeed, her stack of pennies was the smallest by a wide margin. “I fucking knew it! That’s it, soon as we’re back in Tiraas I’m putting in a requisition for come compensation.”

While the joking and laughter carried on, Ephanie politely extracted herself from the lieutenant’s attention and went to join Nandi, who was standing by one of the windows, staring out at the storm with a slight frown.

“All right, Shahai?” she asked softly. “I’ve never known you to be bothered by a little thunder and lightning.”

“It isn’t that,” Nandi said slowly. “I can almost hear…something.”

Ephanie’s eyebrows drew together pensively. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“I wish I could, Avelea. I cannot pick it out, but I have the sense that there is a background sound that…” She trailed off, then finally tore her eyes from the window to look at Ephanie directly. “Elven hearing is a matter of focus. Discerning as many sounds as we do, we’d go mad from over-stimulation if we did not learn to tune most of it out. There is an art to hearing almost everything in one’s vicinity and deciding, subconsciously, what is important. Sometimes the fact that this is art and not science works against us. Something is nagging at me, and I cannot fix my attention upon it. The storm and the soldiers, obviously, do not help.”

“I’ve never seen you do that, either,” Ephanie said, studying her. “You have a great deal of experience to draw on, Shahai. Is this ringing any bells at all? Anything you want to tell me about?”

Nandi’s eyes had narrowed in concentration, tracking to the side as she listened, but at that she fixed her gaze back on Ephanie’s. “It’s nothing I would be comfortable initiating action based upon, but… My experience has been that when I have this sensation, it means someone nearby is attempting to be very stealthy, aware that an elf can hear them. Stealthier than a normal human is capable of being.”

Ephanie nodded slowly. “All right. Thanks for the warning; I’ll discreetly notify the others to be on the alert, but I don’t think we want to spook the local troops just yet.”

“No…tell their lieutenant, at least,” Merry said, having abandoned the last of her pennies and joined them in time to catch the latter part of their exchange. “We’re not the big damn heroes here, that’s those Last Rock kids and possibly Locke. We came here to support the Punaji; I think it’s a bad idea to have the attitude that these troopers are yokels who can’t be trusted to take care of their own city. We should share intel that might be important. Uh, I mean…ma’am.” She finished weakly, belatedly noticing Ephanie’s very pointed stare.

“Mouth off like that in front of anyone, Lang, and I’m gonna have to land on you,” Ephanie said dryly, “but with that said, you are dead right and I thank you for the reminder. Just learn to watch your tone. Most of the Legions do not share Locke’s idea of military comportment.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Merry said contritely.

Ephanie nodded to Nandi. “I’ll go have a discreet word with their LT. I’ve been getting the vibe he’d be happy enough to speak with me in private. It should be his call what to tell his troops, if anything, and if he doesn’t believe me, that’s that.”

“I find human soldiers are often impressed by ‘elf stuff’ to an almost superstitious degree,” Nandi said, her grave tone somewhat spoiled by the twitch of her lips. “Don’t hesitate to mention the ears.”

Ephanie grinned and patted her shoulder. “Back shortly. Keep those ears perked and let me know if you can pick anything important out.”

“Will do.”

Not even an elf could have heard the distortion of candle smoke, or even the movement of air as it was displaced by an invisible body in the rafters; with all the noise of the storm and the boisterous soldiers present, the hidden figure above managed to creep from beam to beam all the way to the stairwell door without drawing further attention.

Rather than risk opening it herself, she had to wait for the next shift change and slip out after the soldier who went to relieve his counterpart upon the battlements. It was a simple enough matter to trip him while he was opening the heavy wooden door, providing her with an opportunity to squeeze past and scamper almost silently up the stairs.

At the top, troopers were hunkered down against the battlements themselves, lifelines tied to their belts in case of someone being blown over the edge. With the wind roaring as it was, Kheshiri didn’t even try to unfurl her wings; she’d have been instantly picked up and hurled halfway to the Stalrange. Flattening herself against the floor and as close to the inner wall as she could, she made her way carefully across, mindful of both storm and soldiers, heading for the other gatehouse—the one not currently inhabited by an elf.

This delay had cost her time. The others would be getting impatient; Shook could only take his frustrations out on her later, but if Khadizroth feared she had been intercepted he might go and do something unfortunate. She would have to move faster to get the gate open, which meant creating an opportunity rather than waiting for one.

The thought was enough to set her tail waving in anticipation.

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13 – 30

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“Somehow, we always end up skulking in alleys,” Layla muttered.

“We’re thieves,” Tallie retorted. “Some cliches exist for a reason. Shall I take the chitter-chatter to indicate you’ve got that thing open?”

“Almost,” Layla said, her attention still focused on the lock.

“On the subject of cliches,” Jasmine said from a few feet away, “it is too quiet. Whoever else is in there, we know they’re accompanied by Silver Legionnaires, who would know to post lookouts. Especially if they were up to anything illicit. Especially since they had to know we’d be in pursuit!”

“They didn’t necessarily know that,” Darius replied from the other end of the alleyway; he and Jasmine were positioned to either side of the house’s kitchen door, keeping watch in both directions. “No reason to assume they understand how Meesie works. If she was smart enough and fast enough, they may not’ve noticed her.”

“That isn’t very comforting,” Jasmine said, even as she soothingly stroked Meesie. The little elemental, having led them to this house, had not un-tensed for a moment, and was glaring at the door, chattering softly. “It’s all conjecture, and anyway, they still should have posted lookouts. Something’s not right. I mean…aside from the obvious.”

Both turned at the soft, distinctive click.

“This,” Layla said in clear satisfaction as she extracted her picks from the door, “is a better lock than belongs on a townhouse in a neighborhood like this.”

“No surprise there,” Tallie muttered. “So, do we…go in?”

Meesie squeaked a shrill affirmative, squirming out of Jasmine’s hand to bounce to her shoulder and point insistently at the door.

“Wait,” Jasmine insisted. “Guys, I’m not just being paranoid. This isn’t right. There’s no explanation for there not being guards; if there are no guards, their role is being fulfilled by something else. We are chasing magic-users. If there are wards, we’ve likely already tripped them, but that’s the least of our concerns. There may be traps. Do I even have to tell you how ugly magical booby traps can get?”

Layla sidled uneasily away from the door she had just jimmied open, while Darius backed up from his end of the alley to join them.

Meesie had led them only a few blocks, to a residential neighborhood somewhat less rich than Glory’s, to judge by the size of the townhouses and their lack of garden space, but just as quiet and discreet. They had cased this one carefully, finding it locked, quiet, and apparently unoccupied; they’d done a somewhat hasty job of it due to trying to avoid notice. There were people out in the main street, and nothing would draw the attention of locals in an area like this faster than a gang of shifty youths peeking into windows and trying door handles. Now, they were gathered in a dim space behind the house with their backs to another just like it—hopefully one from which no one was looking out a window.

Now, even as Layla retreated from the door, Jasmine and Darius closed in on the group, and they all stared at it for a silent moment.

“Well, it’s not like we’ve got any other options,” Tallie said finally. “They’ve got Schwartz and probably Ross; we can’t leave this. Jas, you seem to know more about this than the rest of us. We gotta go in there, so what’s the best thing we can do to prepare?”

Jasmine frowned, drew in a deep breath, and opened her mouth to answer.

“For starters, pay attention.”

All of them whirled, Jasmine bracing herself for a fight. An instant later, she had to shift to snatch Meesie, who charged down her arm and hurled herself bodily at the speaker, squealing furiously.

“What the hell are you doing here,” Tallie demanded, “and holy shit, why does the mouse hate you so much?”

Basra Syrinx glanced disinterestedly at Meesie, who was struggling in Jasmine’s grip, then swept her eyes across the group, finally shifting to peer at the back door of the house.

“It was an unpardonably foolish mistake to stop carrying those scrying bafflers once you got the dwarves off your case,” she said curtly. The Bishop clearly had not slept; her eyes were sunken and her short hair was lank and greasy. Despite that, she did not seem any more irritable than usual, even when shooting a pointed stare at Jasmine as she continued. “The Sisterhood of Avei had taken pains to be able to locate you, missy. Getting access to the tracking charms was just a matter of throwing my political weight around. It’s a good thing I went to the Temple first instead of back to Sharvineh’s place. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Glory, Rasha, Smythe, and Ami are…elsewhere,” Jasmine reported, frowning at Basra and shifting her other hand to help restrain Meesie. “Glory was following up on your progress and they all went with her. The Legionnaires sent to guard the house after the squad from last night apparently abducted Schwartz. Ross is also missing; we’re assuming they either got him too, or he followed them and…well, in that case, they probably got him anyway.”

“Oy.” Darius poked her in the back. “Why the hell is the Sisterhood tracking you? What’d you do, steal a temple idol? Sucker-punch the Hand of Avei?”

She shrugged him off, still watching Syrinx and soothingly stroking Meesie, who had settled down to vibrate furiously, no longer struggling. “I take it your efforts to corral the conspirators didn’t go off without a hitch.”

“No, due to my own High Commander,” Basra snapped, scowling in disgust. “Thanks to her squeamishness about letting outsiders take custody of Sisters, a bunch of them slipped the net. This is also the cause of your problems, as the holes she created in our dragnet not only let Avenist conspirators get through but tipped them off that we were coming, which is how you ended up with corrupt Legionnaires set to guard you. Now you know who to thank. Regardless, did you little snots even notice the emblem of the Topaz College on the front of this house?”

Jasmine sucked in a breath and Layla cringed. Tallie just frowned. “Uh, the what?”

“It’s discreet, but Eserites of all people should know to look for it,” Basra stated. “It’s there to warn the kind of people who mess with other people’s houses not to. This is the home of a Salyrite warlock. That’s the kind of magic you’re facing.”

“The nasty kind,” Darius muttered. “Typical.”

“But it also presents solutions.” The Bishop turned her back on them and strode away. Without thinking, they all fell into step behind her, listening as she rounded the corner and headed back up the side of the house toward the street. “The composition of forces we have is uniquely suited to handle a warlock—if Schwartz isn’t dead and we can get him back into play. He’s a pinhead even by the standards of young men in general, but he is a very competent witch, and his magic will swiftly demolish a warlock’s. And then, there is me.”

Jenell Covrin stood guard at the front of the house, watching people passing by on the street, several of whom slowed to study their group as they went. The Legionnaire looked over at them, but turned back to her vigil immediately with no further reaction.

“Here’s what we’ll do,” Basra stated, bounding up the front steps in a single hop. “I will go in the front and draw attention; you little sneaks go back around to the rear entrance, give me a few minutes to make myself the focus of whatever happens, and then proceed with whatever it was you were trying. That has something of a chance to work if you’re not the sole recipient of whatever reaction ensues. Have Jasmine walk in front and your chances improve further. You need to find Schwartz, quickly, and take care of whatever hold they’ve got on him. With that done we should be in the clear.”

“Hang on,” Tallie protested. “What if he’s drugged? It’s not like we can—”

Basra suddenly flared alight, a golden corona flashing into being around her. Immediately, a series of pops and crashes sounded from within the house, followed by a sharp, acrid smell. Her glowing aura eclipsed the front of the building, and had clearly interacted badly with infernal wards on the inside.

She drew her sword with a flourish, and the blade itself began to glow furiously. Basra brought it up overhead, deftly reversed her grip, and drove the tip into the top edge of the latch fixture where it was set in the wood. A burst of orange fire puffed out of the keyhole as if a tiny infernal explosion had been set off within, and the door itself began to blacken and smoke. The Bishop, ignoring this, yanked back and forth on the blade, and moments later had wrenched the latch entirely free of its mountings, causing the door to jerk open a few inches. Her sword was a pretty and clearly expensive piece, but obviously as sturdy as a crowbar.

“So, hey, thanks for hearing us out and taking time to plan,” Tallie said sourly.

“Wards are tripped,” Basra stated. Behind her, Jenell drew her own weapon and stepped forward. “The peanut gallery back there will be fetching the police. Tick tock, kids.”

With that, she yanked the door all the way open and stepped into the warlock’s house, sword first.


“That’s blackmail!” Ruda snarled.

“I apologize,” the Avatar said, sounding quite sincere. “I do not mean to underplay the seriousness of your concerns. In fact, the security breach in question is of the greatest magnitude; nanites loose on the planet’s surface present a potential catastrophe. But in order to deal with this, I must reassert control over my own systems, and with that I require aid. It is a question of task prioritization.”

“Okay, whoah,” Toby said, stepping up behind Ruda and placing his hands gently on her shoulders. “It sounds like he’s got a point. Let’s try to be logical about this. If we could just ask a few questions to clarify, Mr. Avatar?”

“Most assuredly,” the man of purple light said with a smile. Unlike his previous flat appearance in the screens, his translucent form was now projected in midair by one of the nearby machines. “No honorific is needed, by the way. If your customs require a personal form of address, I am known by my designation, Zero Two.”

“Ah…okay,” Toby said carefully. Ruda, meanwhile, pulled away from him, grumbling, but did not speak up again. “Then, I guess the most urgent questions are what do you need us to do, exactly, and why can’t you have your golem here do it?”

The Caretaker chimed disconsolately, changing its face to a sad one.

“Also,” Milady added, “who messed all this up in the first place?”

“Apt questions, all,” the Avatar said, nodding. “In short, my core system has been interrputed and a link interposed directly into my central processing network, requiring the information flow which constitutes my personality to be routed through the devices you see here. This is a direct link to the gate to Alt Earth One. As a result, data being broadcast from that world—which is a more advanced society than yours and transmits vast quantities of data—is interjected directly into my mind. This, obviously, is…distracting.”

“Holy crap,” Fross chimed. “No wonder you went crazy!”

“Significant program corruption is the inevitable consequence of this, yes,” he said soberly. “My memory is able to store the entire Internet of the period, but having to sort through it anew every second puts a massive strain on my processors. I believe I can remain lucid long enough to help you conduct repairs; as best as I have been able to determine, it took my previous iteration years to degrade to the point that I began to so badly mismanage this facility. But as for the question of who did this, I do not know. Extreme data corruption has occurred, making it difficult for me to extract useful information from my former self’s memories. At a glance, however, I find the lack of specific data on that point suggestive, and suspicious. Some data would inevitably be lost, but I think this was deliberately deleted. Unfortunately, the overall corruption has made it all but impossible to determine how, by whom, or for what purpose. I will of course reconstruct the surviving data to the best of my ability, but that will take time, and I suspect the saboteur covered their tracks too well.”

Milady muttered a soft curse.

“And as for why you need our help?” Ruda said pointedly.

“Ah, yes. I need someone able to interface with the consoles for me. I have been locked out of certain relevant functions, which complicates this. Simply shutting off these machines, or pulling them out, would likely destroy me entirely. That would swiftly result in the destruction of this facility and have unknowable repercussions for the nanites loose above. Ordinarily I should be able to bypass this device in several ways, but those methods have all been disabled. I require the aid of sapients to re-activate them and disable this parasite apparatus so it can be dismantled.”

“That still doesn’t explain why the golem can’t do it,” Gabriel objected.

“Actually it does,” Ruda said grudgingly. “Look, Arquin, all the doodads we’ve seen require you to either talk to ’em in a voice or touch ’em with fingers, right? Well, the Caretaker hasn’t got either of those things, just bells and claws. The Elder Gods were the prototypical fucking assholes who set the mold we Punaji have had to deal with for centuries. If you wanna keep somebody enslaved, you gotta make sure they have no means of ever becoming anything more.”

The Caretaker let out a soft chime, then suddenly rolled across the alcove toward Ruda. She shied backward, but the little golem kept coming, gently pressing its squat bulk against her and wrapping two of its limbs around her gently. One patted her back.

“Uh…okay,” she said uncertainly, awkwardly patting the top of the golem in response.

“I have a question!” Juniper raised her hand. “What’s nanites?”

The Avatar hesitated before answering. “This topic is highly classified… But the proverbial ship has well and truly sailed, it seems. Nanites are molecule-sized machines which are deployed in swarms of millions. They work in unison to accomplish tasks.”

“Huh,” Gabriel mused, absently watching Ruda gently disentangle herself from the Caretaker’s hug. “And…how come everybody’s so scared of them?”

“Think,” Principia said wryly. “Think about it real hard.”

“Well, we know they can turn people in o machine hybrids,” Toby said slowly, “cause machine parts to grow over stuff like moss…”

“And act like a disease to take out enemy troops,” Gabriel finished, wincing. “Yikes, point taken. And if they’re not even magical, most of our methods of countering them wouldn’t work.”

“Finally, a cooperative Avatar,” Milady murmured. “Walker said ours shut off whole chunks of the entertainment database to hide references to them once she started asking questions.”

“Yes, that is also what I would do, were the situation other than what it is,” the Avatar agreed. “But it is clear you have a need to understand. The Infinite Order were paranoid about some forms of technology, but the power of nanites they knew firsthand. On Earth, they acquired permission to colonize this world by assembling a complete record of the evolution of life using their temporal viewing technology. They were not highly thought of, so this service was vital in securing the colonization license. Earth was at that time in the process of rebuilding from global environmental catastrophe, and this knowledge was priceless in its applications toward reconstructing the biosphere.

“Upon coming here, they did exactly that. The Order first constructed Luna Station, then retreated there, secured the planet itself in a temporal bubble and unleashed nanite swarms to spend the next several billion years of vastly accelerated time to replicate the process of evolution as it had occurred on Earth. Nanites guided the development of life according to this pre-established pattern by intervening constantly on the cellular level, in a planet-wide, coordinated process. The result, when the process reached its endpoint and the planet’s temporal state was re-aligned with the universe, was an organically evolved biosphere ninety-six percent identical to Earth’s. This gave them a familiar environment with which to work.”

There was a momentary silence, in which only the hum of machinery and the rush of water was heard.

“That,” Ruda said finally, “has got to be the most grandiose, overblown, unnecessarily fucking complicated means anybody in the history of the universe has ever used to accomplish any task.”

“Sounds like something they’d do,” Milady said with a sigh.

“The universe is incomprehensibly vast and almost entirely unknown,” replied the Avatar, “but…your point is well taken. The Infinite Order were very interested in the scientific discoveries incidentally gleaned from this process. And, it must be said, in being able to boast that they had done it.”

“Yeah, so, clearly we can’t have those things running loose, especially not working for the Rust,” Fross agreed. “Also, what’s Luna Station?”

“Upon their arrival here, the Infinite Order removed this planet’s three natural satellites and constructed its current artificial one in the same configuration as Earth’s moon. It consists of an outer crust of habitable indoor space surrounding a mostly hollow area with a dark matter generator at its core, which not only provided the necessary power for the early stages of the Ascension Project, but also exerts the gravitational pull that reproduces the tidal forces exerted upon Earth by Luna.”

“Wait, the fucking moon is—no, stop.” Ruda covered her eyes with a hand, slightly dislodging her hat. “No more vast revelations, I can’t deal with this shit right now. We’ve got more immediate concerns, people.”

“Yeah, keeping it a bit more on point,” Gabriel agreed, “let’s fix all this crap before the place floods.”

“About that, you need not worry,” the Avatar reassured them. “Fortunately, the Fabrication Plant’s teleportation array is on a lower level and is completely submerged. I am constantly teleporting large blocks of water out to sea; I can do this much faster than it is coming in. The flooding is under control. Other systems over which I still have control are re-enforcing the damaged areas to prevent a collapse due to water pressure. You are no longer in physical danger here. But I do require urgent aid to dismantle this disruptive construction so I can regain full control and then deal with the nanite problem.”

“All right, sounds good,” Toby said, cracking his knuckles. “What do you need us to do?”


“There you are.”

Maureen started guiltily, peeking over the top of the large book she had in her lap. It was a hefty dwarven engineering text, designed to be left open on a reference desk and not held; the size of the thing nearly obscured her body.

“Ah…here I am,” the gnome said, smiling tentatively at Crystal, who had approached the dim corner of the library stacks in which she had tucked herself away. “Were ye lookin’ for me?”

“I have been conducting a sweep of the library; your name is still on the unaccounted list,” the golem librarian said seriously. Her diction and elocution had improved recently with some of Tellwyrn’s last modifications, but her face was still a blank metal mask. “I gather you skipped classes this morning, or you would know about the campus-wide state of alert.”

“Alert?” Maureen lowered the book carefully to the floor and wiggled out from under it at the same time. “What’s goin’ on?”

“I do not know, exactly, but students are all instructed to report to the Crawl immediately,” Crystal said.

“Wait, the Crawl? What the blazes do we need—”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” the golem said patiently. “But it is general knowledge that the Crawl has a single, defensible entrance, which leads directly to the Grim Visage, a zone in which violence is impossible. It is not hard to surmise that Professor Tellwyrn perceives immediate danger, to have issued this order. Campus security has been trying to round up the students for the last hour. I need to finish checking over the library; you need to report to the Crawl as ordered. Professor Ezzaniel is there to coordinate, along with Mr. Fedora. They will direct you further.”

Maureen swallowed heavily. “I…this… This is why I was hidin’ in the corner. I dunno how much more o’ this I can take.”

“I understand, Maureen,” Crystal said gently. “It has been a very stressful few weeks. But for now, you need to go. The Crawl is safe, and you’ll be with the rest of the students and most of the fac—”

She broke off and started to turn; Maureen barely glimpsed the black shape which had suddenly materialized out of nowhere behind the librarian, and then before Crystal could finish pivoting to face it, she froze.

Light blazed out from the openings in the golem’s joints, along with a high-pitched keening of enchantments being strained to the breaking point as far too much power was poured into them. Crystal actually rose slowly off the ground, arching her back in apparent pain. Her body continued to stretch, the gaps between solid segments widening and glowing ever brighter as if some tremendous force was being exerted from within.

Maureen dropped the book and scrambled backward into the corner. She had room, there, to escape around one end of the nearest row of shelves, but for the moment she only stared in horror.

With a shrill grinding noise, the metal plates themselves began coming apart, arcs of static snapping between them, revealing filaments, pieces of crystal and other interior workings of the golem’s body, barely visible within the brightness.

A shriek finally burst forth—a sound in Crystal’s actual voice, not the noise of metal and magic being tested beyond its limits.

And with a tremendous shockwave that knocked over the shelves and slammed Maureen against the wall, her body exploded. Fragments of metal peppered the entire area, a piece barely missing the gnome’s head.

Behind her, still holding up the illegally modified wand which he had used to overload the golem, stood a balding, hawk-faced man in a long black coat.

“There is but one punishment for treason,” he said, pointing the device at her. “In the Emperor’s name.”

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13 – 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Both conditions applied to Princess Zaruda this evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Akhatrya, wait a second.”

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

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

“I am at your service.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not usually,” he muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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11 – 41

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The cloud cover had broken not long after midnight, and the following day dawned unusually clear and cloudless for Tiraas. It was still cold, winter having apparently decided to stay now that it had come. The city itself was in fairly good shape, its army of civil servants having been hard at work through the night with salt and shovels. Only along the northern districts, where water mains had broken and frozen, was the clean-up still impeding business. Elsewhere in the city, particularly in its bustling central districts, life went on at its usual pace.

Of course, the High Commander of the Sisters of Avei would probably not have delayed her activities even for an active hailstorm, and so Principia was summoned to her office shortly after breakfast.

“He said that?” Rouvad demanded skeptically.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “Obviously, I cannot attest to how serious he was or what he will do next, but Lord Vex’s exact words were ‘none of this happened.’ Considering the factions and individuals represented, I can understand how the Imperial government would prefer to avoid untangling the diplomatic mess that would result.”

“You implied there was more,” Rouvad prompted.

“Yes, Commander. The demolition of the fortress, he said, is to be recorded as a deliberate action by the Empire to remove an unsafe structure, preparatory to replacing it with a modern facility. And…he made it quite plain that, Imperial cover-up or not, the actions of everyone present would be taken into account the next time any of us have to interact with the Imperial government.”

“Splendid,” the Commander said sourly, then heaved a sigh. “Suddenly I feel a little nervous that I haven’t heard from Intelligence yet. It’s early, but I don’t believe that man actually sleeps. And he definitely saw the disruptors?”

“Saw, and demanded that they be handed over,” Principia said. “I refused. I apologize for any trouble that results, ma’am, but that seemed to me both the best thing to do given the tactical needs of the situation, and the course of action most compliant with Legion regulations.”

“That rather depends on the manner of your refusal, Sergeant.”

“I was forthright and completely honest, ma’am. I told Lord Vex those particular devices were made by me personally, on a mandate from you and using Avenist resources, and thus the property of the Sisterhood. I…mentioned that if he wanted them, he would have to take it up with you.”

“That will be an enjoyable conversation, I’m sure,” the Commaner said wryly.

“Yes, ma’am. I did not mention anything regarding how we obtained the specs for those disruptors. He will surely demand that information.”

“Then I’ll take great pleasure in passing the buck. Vex can try to drag his answers out of the Thieves’ Guild, and much good may it do him. You said there was another matter on which you wished to report.” Her eyes dropped to Principia’s hands; Rouvad had not asked about the objects she was carrying.

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, approaching the desk. She reached out and carefully laid a tiny ball of lead on its surface. “I wish to put Private Lang forward for a commendation. I realize that she cannot be awarded the Red Star due to it being on a mission not disclosed even to our captain, but she was wounded in the line of duty.”

“Reasonable,” Rouvad said with a touch of impatience. “I’ll instruct Dijanerad to approve it. Is that immediately pertinent, Locke?”

“Yes, ma’am. This object was removed from her arm. It punched through her shield, through the defensive enchantments on that shield—both of which were completely destroyed by the impact—and then through her armor and bicep. By that point it had lost enough momentum that it merely broke the bone on impact rather than taking her arm off entirely. That piece of metal had to have been moving at a significant fraction of the speed of sound to have that much energy behind it.”

“I see,” Rouvad said noncommittally, glancing at the object in the sergeant’s other hand. “You have some insight, I take it, into the kind of spell which could do this?”

“That’s just it, ma’am. I don’t believe there was any spell. Shahai managed to retrieve this from the snow while Zanzayed was teleporting dwarves back to the Svennish embassy.” She laid the device on the desk. It was a simple thing, seemingly little more than a short length of pipe with a wooden handle and a clicker mechanism. “We have both examined it and found no evidence of enchantment present at all, though there are burn marks and traces of chemical explosive inside the tube.”

“I see,” Rouvad repeated, picking up the object and turning it over in her hands. “What do you make of it?”

“The lead ball fits neatly in that tube,” Principia said. “From there, we can deduce how it works. An explosive powder is packed into the base of it, the ball is placed in on top of that, and the powder is ignited by a sparking mechanism triggered by squeezing that switch. The explosion, contained as it is, propels the ball with tremendous force, and the length of the tube guides its trajectory.”

“Ingenious,” Rouvad marveled.

“This is extremely concerning,” Principia said, frowning. “You are of course aware that all magical shields are weakened by contact with physical objects. That thing hits with enough sheer kinetic force to collapse any shielding charm I’ve ever heard of, and probably a lot of personal caster shields. A paladin or archmage’s shield could stand up to it, most likely, but… Ma’am, I know just enough physics and math to do my various jobs, but I am pretty sure this technology could be scaled up without any real limits. A cannon-sized version of that could destroy any magical shield in existence, and any fortification behind it.”

“Dwarven engineering at its finest,” Rouvad noted. “What intrigues me most is that I’ve never heard of such a device before. I don’t suppose you’ve analyzed the explosive used?”

“Not in detail, ma’am, but I did a very basic charm test on the traces inside the tube, and I think the results were the most interesting part of this yet. No alchemical agents were present; this was a completely non-magical explosive compound, which has to be a deliberate design choice, as the effect could be achieved far more easily with enchantments. This is a non-magical and anti-magical weapon. We can’t know the range without testing it, but it’s surely comparable to conventional wands. If a force armed with these faced off against a unit of the Imperial Army, they’d have similar firepower, and the Army’s defensive measures would be useless. It would be a rout.”

“Hm.”

“Of course, as soon as they use these where the Empire can see, countermeasures will be in the works. I think they must have been desperate and planning to wipe out everyone there, to have used it in sight of us last night. But if they pick the right battle, it only has to work once. If a dwarven force were able to secure or destroy the right high-value target, they could truly change the fates of the Five Kingdoms by forcing the Empire to terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said patiently, “I find your various skills and aptitudes useful in their place, but there is something backward about you lecturing me on matters of military strategy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“Needless to say,” the Commander went on, “you may consider this as classified as everything else which occurred last night.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Have you anything else to report, sergeant?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Principia stepped back from the desk, leaving the lead ball and its launcher with the Commander, and stood at attention. “The fortress was destroyed by the adventurers summoned by General Avelea, at the command of Bishop Syrinx, who was sent to fetch them. According to Avelea’s plan, which Syrinx knew, my squad should have been in it when that happened.”

“And so you both improvised,” Rouvad said flatly. “Basra with her pyrotechnics and you by involving the dragon who involved the Empire whom I’ll be dealing with for the forseeable future about this.”

“Ma’am, destroying that fortress was an action with no strategic application in that situation. I believe its only purpose was to destroy us.”

“You are, in fact, my third meeting today, early as it is,” Rouvad replied. “I have already been over this with General Avelea and Bishop Syrinx, who has explanations for every one of her actions last night. Something tells me you don’t particularly care to hear them.”

“That’s correct, ma’am. With regard to—”

“Locke, my patience for repeating myself to you is thin. I’ve already made it plain I’m not having this infighting. I will deal with Syrinx, and you will drop it.”

“No,” Principia said flatly.

Very slowly, Rouvad leaned forward in her chair, her face suddenly devoid of all expression. “What did you say, soldier?”

“I said no, Commander,” Principia repeated. “Attempts on my life don’t much bother me; it doesn’t pay to take these things personally. But if that woman tries to murder my soldiers one more time, I am going to murder her right back. And the difference between me and Basra Syrinx is that I accomplish what I set out to. If you want to keep your Bishop, get her under control before someone else has to.” She saluted. “I will now report for court martial if that is your command, so long as you understand that it won’t change anything.”

Rouvad stared at her in silence; Principia stared right back. It was almost a minute before the Commander spoke.

“Do you want to be removed from the Legions, Locke?”

“No, ma’am.”

“You have what you signed up for, now. Trissiny is on speaking terms with you; let’s not pretend that wasn’t your whole purpose for doing this. So why are you still here?”

“I—”

“Tell me the truth,” she ordered. “And don’t assume I won’t know if you don’t.”

The sergeant hesitated before replying. “I find serving here…much more satisfying than I expected. And I want very much to continue looking after my girls. Their potential is enormous, but with so much arrayed against them I don’t want to leave them.”

The High Commander suddenly sighed and eased back in her chair. “Trissiny reported on your performance, by the way. She said you are insubordinate and failed to follow her orders. She also said that your strategies on the ground were better than her own, and your refusal to respect the chain of command saved your soldiers’ lives and contributed significantly to her victory. I would suspect she was sugar-coating it were that not exactly what I have observed from you from the beginning.”

Principia kept silent while Rouvad studied her thoughtfully for another long moment.

“It’s useful, having someone on one’s side who isn’t a slave to regulations and the chain of command,” Rouvad finally continued. “It’s one of the things that has made Nandi so valuable to me, and to my predecessor, and why I was so reluctant to cede her to you. As I recall, you’ve seen firsthand that I tolerate backtalk from her that would send any other soldier immediately to the stockade. But she has devoted more time and energy to the Legion’s service than all of us combined; the leeway she has is more than earned. And then there’s you.” She paused again, peering up at Principia with an expression that was almost quizzical. “That’s the damnable thing about you, Locke. You’re just so…useful. For all the headaches you cause me, I can’t help getting the impression you actually are loyal to the Legions, and you do get results. But you’re just not ever going to be a good soldier, and I think I’d get no use out of you at all if I forced you to be.”

Rouvad folded her arms on the desk and raised an eyebrow.

“Dealing with you is a lot like dealing with Basra Syrinx.”

Principia let the silence stretch another moment before replying.

“That wasn’t called for, Commander.”

“No, I’m not going to have you court-martialed,” Rouvad said, suddenly more brisk. “Instead, I shall take it as a sign of the urgency of the matter that you’re willing to risk speaking to me that way—and only because we are alone here, Locke. Open your mouth like that where anyone else can hear it and by the time I’m done with you, I promise you will be grateful for the mercy of standing before a military tribunal. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Is it believed?” Rouvad said more pointedly. “You think you’re smarter than I—don’t deny it. But I did not become the mortal leader of the cult of war without being as crafty and as ruthless as the situation demands. I certainly wouldn’t be keeping a creature like Syrinx on a leash otherwise. And let’s not forget the weight my words have with the only person alive whose opinion matters to you enough that you’d subject yourself to all this.” She smiled, as cold as the snow outside. “I can hurt you, Locke, if you make it necessary. So don’t.”

“…yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.

“And just keep away from Syrinx, for now,” Rouvad said with a heavy sigh. “Yes, I’m aware of the situation and what she did, and she as usual has conjured sufficient justification to evade official censure for her actions. The thing she and you have in common is that you both seem to think I can’t punish or contain her under such circumstances.” She straightened up in her seat, that frosty little smile returning to her face. “You’re both wrong. Basra is being dealt with as we speak, by one of my more…unconventional assets.”


Basra whirled, scowling, when the door of her office was opened without the courtesy of a knock, but quickly marshaled her expression when she saw who had walked in.

Trissiny was still wearing her street clothes and slightly battered coat rather than the silver armor, and hadn’t removed the dye from her hair—yet there was a distinctive change in her demeanor. She had put enough effort into cultivating a casual, non-military bearing that her stiff spine and purposeful stride were now all the more distinctive for their return.

As was the black bird perched on her left shoulder.

“Good morning, General Avelea,” Basra said smoothly, shutting the cabinet in which she had been digging and stepping away to meet her guests. “And…Mary, always a pleasure. I wasn’t expecting to see either of you again so soon.”

The crow ruffled her feathers, but remained mute.

“Good morning, your Grace,” Trissiny said, staring pensively at her. “Sorry to interrupt so early in the day, but I have a full list of errands myself and I hoped to catch you before you headed to the Church.”

“Not at all, my time is yours,” Basra replied. “Please, have a seat. What can I do for you?”

Trissiny tilted her head, making no move toward the proffered chair; on her shoulder, the crow mimicked the expression, which would have been comical if not for the suddenly fraught atmosphere.

“I wonder if you could clarify your tactics for me,” said the paladin, “as an experienced commander to one still learning. What purpose did the destruction of the fortress serve?”

“Considering our list of allies and enemies,” Basra replied immediately, “and the likelihood of those extremely professional dwarves discerning your procession’s goal and moving to intercept you, I realized, upon reaching and surveying the field, that that fortress was just waiting to be used as an ambush against you. Had they reached it first, your attempt to secure it would have led to your group’s downfall. I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t think of any of this in the first place, but I was unfamiliar with that old ruin before seeing it for the first time last night.”

“I should mention,” Trissiny said quietly, “I have already spoken with Joe, Mr. Weaver, and their other friends this morning. None of them reported any sign of dwarves reaching the fortress. They simply said that you directed it to be destroyed.”

“And that bloodthirsty little gnome was more thrilled than I have ever seen anyone to oblige,” Basra said dryly. “Honestly, I was expecting her to start a fire or something. How or why she had munitions of that quality on hand I’m afraid even to ask. But the result was satisfactory. The purpose was to deny the enemy a fortification, not catch them in it; acting before they arrived was thus the entire point. You know this very well, Trissiny, it’s basic military strategy. The general who prepares the ground ahead of the battle controls the field.”

“And,” Trissiny said more quietly still, “according to my orders, Squad One would have been in that fortress at the time.”

“According to your orders,” Basra said with an indulgent smile, “there would have been no dragons and no Imperial presence. Your ambush would have succeeded, thanks to the adventurers you sent me to rally and my initiative in removing that fortification. Zanzayed was…overkill. And involving Vex will carry a hefty political price for all of us. I did not anticipate that, exactly, but I expected things to go south if we assumed Locke’s part in the plan would be carried out correctly. Believe me, Trissiny, I know how Locke thinks.”

“Did you scout,” Trissiny asked, “to make sure the squad was not inside?”

“We observed no tracks,” Basra replied. “In that snow—”

“In that snow, tracks would have faded quickly; it was still coming down.”

“Not that heavily, and only two of the squad are elves. Six women in full armor would leave easily discernible tracks—”

“And so you checked every approach to the fortress?”

“Why on earth would they have circled around to the back?” Basra tilted her head in a mimicry of their earlier gesture. “I must say I’m sensing a little hostility, here. Everything went exactly as I expected, and according to my plan—with the exception, of course, of Locke’s needless complications. Had it been any other squad, I would have considered it a risk. That woman is congenitally unable to do as she is told.”

“I came here,” Trissiny said, “hoping you would help me understand why such a risk was warranted. I confess that I’m still not there.”

“Perhaps,” Basra said more firmly, “you should be mindful of your own preconceptions. I understand you may have an emotional attachment to Sergeant Locke, that’s only natural. Just…don’t forget what kind of creature she is, Trissiny. Her interest in your existence began when you became someone it was politically useful to know. She is only here because of that, because she sees in you the chance to advance herself. Don’t let her deceive you.”

“I won’t,” Trissiny replied, smiling thinly. “Her, or anyone else.”

Basra sighed. “I see you’re not convinced. I have been over this in more detail with the High Commander already this morning; she accepted my reasoning. If you doubt me, I encourage you to take it up with her. And it might profit you to ask her opinion of Principia Locke’s performance as a soldier while you’re there.”

“Right,” Trissiny said, nodding agreeably. “You have all the angles covered just enough that nobody can authoritatively call you down. Well done.”

“I don’t think that tone is necessary,” Basra said mildly.

The crow suddenly emitted a soft croak, and very gently pecked at Trissiny’s ear, then turned her head to jab her beak toward the door.

“Well, then,” Trissiny said, smiling again. “I suppose that covers what I came to ask. I also wanted to offer a word of advice, Bishop Syrinx: you should not assume you’re the only one who can make things mysteriously explode.”

Basra raised one eyebrow. Before she could speak, however, the rapidly approaching sound of pounding boots echoed from the hall, through the door which Trissiny had left open a crack. The Bishop turned, frowning, and stepped toward it to investigate.

The boots skidded to a stop outside and the door was yanked open to admit Private Covrin, breathless and disheveled. “Your Grace!” she panted. “The—they sent—I mean, I only just learned, I’m sorry for the delay but I think my message was intercepted—”

“Spit it out, Covrin!” Basra said in exasperation. “Sometime today!”

“Ma’am,” her aide said desperately, “there’s a fire. At—at your house.”

She gazed nervously at the Bishop, still regaining her breath, but Basra had gone completely still and expressionless. Slowly, she turned to stare at Trissiny.

The paladin had stepped to one side, and was now trying to roll a doubloon across the backs of her knuckles. She went at it with excruciating slowness, clearly unpracticed in the maneuver, tentatively shifting the coin one finger’s increment at a time.

At Basra’s stare, she looked up and smiled. “Well, that sounds rather urgent; don’t let me keep you any longer. Excuse me, private.”

Covrin stepped aside to let her leave, and both of them stared after the departing paladin in silence.

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11 – 37

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Everyone drifted off into groups when Glory excused herself from the room, but no one felt a desire to wander far. With the exception of Vandro, who swaggered off to prowl around the townhouse, they remained in the grand salon on the top floor. Thus, when the house’s doorbell rang, it was the work of only moments for all present guests to assemble themselves. By unspoken consensus, they did so there in the salon, not moving to meet the new arrival in the front hall.

Glory herself had just rejoined them when, with customarily preternatural timing, Smythe appeared to announce their newest visitor.

“Rumor, bearing word from Boss Tricks,” he said impassively.

She very nearly pushed him aside, striding into the room and irritably brushing snowflakes out of her mussed hair. “Yeah, yeah, I feel so pretty. How about something hot to—oh, thank fuck, here you assholes are. Now I can stop rolling around in the goddamn snow.”

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

“Boss is looking for you,” Casethin replied, panning a disgruntled stare across them. “One, two… You’re missing one.”

“Jasmine is fine; she’s here as well,” Glory said smoothly. “Smythe, something warm for our guest to drink, please. You have news, Rumor?”

“And you’re looking for us?” Tallie asked, nonplussed.

“Okay, first things first, chronologically speaking,” Casethin said irritably. “I got back to the Guild just fine with word. The dwarf was telling the truth; they had Pick in their fucking basement.”

“Is he all right?” Grip asked quietly, without expression.

“Hadn’t been roughed up,” Rumor snorted. “Fucking dwarves. Too civilized for such brutish measures, puffed-up assholes. He’s been drugged to hell, though; was practically incoherent. No way of telling what they got out of him, but Vanda and the Boss both think it can’t have been much, or they wouldn’t have been chasing these little bastards as stubbornly as they were. Anyhow, Pick’s secured in one of Vanda’s safe houses, being tended by the best healer she could scrape up. He seems fairly okay; they’re not sure what he got dosed with exactly, but practically anything’ll wear off given time. Too risky out there to try getting him back to the Casino, though, so he’s stuck with our back-alley shaman, but Zephyr knows what he’s doing.”

“Why?” Glory asked. “What’s happening?”

“Will you let me talk?” Casethin retorted with poor grace, even as she accepted a mug of something steaming from a tray proffered by Smythe. “Seriously, I’ll go over everything. This is what I do, lemme work.” She paused to take a sip, then grimaced and turned accusingly to Smythe. “There is no booze in this. What’s wrong with you?”

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

“Yeah, all right, fine. I got past a hilariously ineffective attempt to trip me up by what’s left of that dwarven intelligence cell, made it to the Guild and reported in to the Boss. So he’s up to speed. I’m here because he sent me out to locate these junior fuckups,” she pointed accusingly at the knot of apprentices, “and bring them and everybody else on the list into the know. This was the fourth place. Your house was empty,” she added to Vandro, “and I’ve gotta say I’m surprised to find you here of all places, but now that I think of it, I don’t actually care what you’re up to, so kindly don’t explain.”

“How does the Boss have a list of places we might possibly be?” Darius asked, frowning.

“Because,” said Grip, “before I set out after you, we established that list; considering the situation, it seemed wise to have prearranged safe spots to bring you in case we couldn’t get back to the Guild.”

“What, you’re surprised?” Rumor grinned nastily. “You thought little ol’ Grip came to rescue you outta the goodness of her heart? Breaking news: she’s got neither goodness nor heart, and she’s so far up the Boss’s ass—”

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

“Yeah, there is.” Rumor’s expression sobered. “We’ve got dwarven activity out there. Lots of it, widespread.”

“Activity, hm?” Vandro swirled his whiskey glass idly. He was either on another or had just never finished the first. “What sort?”

“We don’t know, and that’s put everything on hold.” Rumor took another long sip of her drink, then stalked over to the nearest chair and plunked herself down with a wince. “Oof, my poor fucking feet… Okay, so obviously, once it got back to the Boss that these fuckers had imprisoned and drugged a member of the Guild, open season was declared upon them. That’s one of the things I’m to spread around; we’re mustering. Every Guild agent in the city who’s able and inclined is to assemble at the Casino for orders, preparatory to ending these assholes for good and all.”

“For heaven’s sake,” Layla sniffed, “why did it take this long? If foreign agents were pursuing his apprentices, I should think the first hint of that was the appropriate time for a preventive show of force.”

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

“No one,” Darius said firmly, placing a hand over Layla’s mouth when she opened it to protest.

“Allow me to answer the question, little lady,” Vandro chimed in. “We’re not the Sisterhood, or the Huntsmen; the Boss is basically a glorified housekeeper, or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Eserites don’t fall in and march at anyone’s order. But when our own are attacked? That’s another matter.”

“The last time something like this happened was a year ago,” Glory added, “almost exactly. Three Army officers dragged one of our information brokers into an alley and beat her. Every Guild agent in the city mobilized to essentially shut down that entire barracks. Much as we prize our independence, we do not suffer entrenched powers to abuse our people.”

“Uh huh, that’s very nice with the history and doctrine and all,” Casethin said impatiently (despite having taken the opportunity of their conversation to finish her drink), “but I have actually important news. These dwarves have been mobilizing at the same time as we are, which is why Boss’s current orders are to assemble at the Casino and not engage ’em.”

“Wait, mobilizing who?” Rasha asked. “I thought you guys said they couldn’t have many people left.”

“That was Jasmine’s assessment, and it was solid logic,” said Tallie. “It’s not like we know, though. Yeah, mobilizing, who, exactly?”

“Dunno,” Rumor said, frowning, “but lots. We got dwarves crawling out of the fuckin’ woodwork all of a sudden. When I left the Casino—and this was a couple hours back, so no telling what’s going on now—there were three entire carriage-loads of armed dwarves appearing via the city gates, the Svenheim embassy just went on some kind of alert with armed guards at all entrances, and suddenly dwarves have been appearing, just, everywhere. In groups, lots with weapons. Least fifty, that we knew of last I was in the loop.”

“The timing doesn’t work,” Grip said sharply. “If you went right from Glass Alley to the Casino, and then set off to search for us, how the hell do you already have this much detail?”

“Yeah, that’s the scary part,” Rumor said with a grim scowl. “They are very deliberately making it known what they’re doing. These armed groups? They’re popping up in front of known Guild facilities, or at least the homes and workplaces of members. They’re showing us they’ve got numbers and mean business.”

“How can they possibly have that many people ready to mobilize in Tiraas?” Darius exclaimed. “I thought intelligence cells had to be small!”

“Dwarves do not have the same relationship to their government that we do,” Glory mused. “Some may just be travelers and tradespeople who happened to be in the city and answered a call put out in the name of their king. Then, again, at least some were undoubtedly sleeper agents. Every government has at least a handful of those in every foreign capital, at least any large enough to afford it. Or perhaps Svenheim had people in Tiraas for another purpose, and the operatives with whom you’ve been dealing were able to activate them..”

“Doesn’t really matter, in the short term,” Rumor grunted. “They’re out there, armed, and in enough numbers that us crackin’ down on ’em wouldn’t be a crackdown so much as a goddamn battle. Boss is sending people to watch ’em, but orders are it’s to be strictly hands off for now.”

“Hmm.” Vandro sipped his drink. “I have to hand it to the bastards, that is a good play. Have you seen any reaction from the Empire yet?”

“Not when I left,” Casethin said with a shrug and a grimace. “There damn well has to have been one by now, though. There’s no way Imperial Intelligence would fail to notice this going on.”

“And that enforces a detente,” said Glory, nodding. “With the dwarves and the Guild both arming up and the nature of the situation obscured, whoever shoots first will be the recipient of the Empire’s full wrath. Most long-lasting governments treat the Guild with a modicum of respect, but no legal authority will tolerate anything that resembles an insurgency flaring up in its own capital. However, it also starts the clock ticking. It won’t take Intelligence long to get enough details to step in, one way or the other. Whatever they mean to do, they’ll do soon.”

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

“This is insanity!” Layla protested. “The Kingdom of Svenheim is not in such a secure situation that they can afford to do this. It’s potentially an act of war, and the Empire would decisively crush any of the Five Kingdoms!”

“The Empire could decisively crush all five together in open war,” Glory corrected, “though actually invading and occupying dwarven territory is tremendously unwise. That may be beside the point, however. I cannot believe the matter of these staves is important enough to Svenheim to risk war. Without doubt, every dwarf responding to this call will have some kind of deniability. The Empire may well know that they were involved in organizing it, but so long as none of these individuals are provably in the pay of their crown and their actions do not cross certain lines, Sharidan and Eleanora won’t react with excessive hostility. They do risk severely undermining the very important trade negotiations going on, however.” She narrowed her eyes in thought. “It doesn’t add up. Why is this so important to them? And if it is, why are they only acting in such force now?”

“Yeah, well, this part’s over my head,” Rumor grunted, getting up and casually tossing the empty mug to Smythe. “I gotta report back to the Boss now I know where you are. And then I’ll probably end up trudging through the goddamn snow all night carrying messages…”

“What about Pick?” Ross asked. “I mean, and Ironeye and the others? If the dwarves are arming up, aren’t they in danger?”

Rumor snorted derisively, already stomping toward the door. “Safer’n any of us. Glass Alley is a killing ground for anybody who takes Vanda on in force. I think these fuckers are too smart to try, but if they do…good.”

Smythe gave Glory a pointed look as he followed her out, prompting her to sigh.

“Well…what now?” Darius asked once they had left the room. “We can’t just sit here!”

“Oh, we’re gonna sit here, all right,” said Vandro. “This is no time to go charging out into the snow. But you’re right, son, we can’t just sit here. The trick is making the right preparations when we don’t know what the enemy intends.”

“No armed dwarves have appeared in this neighborhood, in force or otherwise,” Glory mused. “The constabulary would respond immediately to that, and I am not the only local resident with security wards which would detect such activity. We are, for the moment, as tentatively safe as before we knew of this.”

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

Rasha started at the sudden voice, and everyone turned to stare at Jasmine, who was just inside the salon’s rear door, leaning her back against its frame, arms folded. She had been inside long enough that the snow had melted from her hair, though there were still visibly wet patches on the shoulders of her coat.

“Wh—how long have you been there?” Darius demanded. “And what the hell was that jibberish?”

“Long enough to catch the high notes,” she said. “And it was an example.”

“Hmm,” Glory said, a slow smile creeping across her face. “Interesting idea, Jasmine.”

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

“Honestly,” Layla huffed, “didn’t any of you go to school?”

“Darius, I’m gonna punch her,” Tallie announced.

“No, you’re not,” he said firmly, then turned to point at Ralph, who had abruptly jumped up from his seat near the window and taken a step toward them. “No, she’s not! Sit down!”

“During the conquest of the Stalrange,” said Jasmine, “most of the Empire’s military was obviously there. At one point a pocket of Stalweiss guerrillas took to summoning demons behind Imperial lines to disrupt the Army, which caused two Silver Legions to be routed there as support. A single half-strength Legion was left behind to patrol Viridill. At that time, three orcish clans formed a horde pact and crossed the river from Athan’Khar. With Viridill mostly undefended, the Legionnaires under the command of a then Hand of Avei, Nambini Onpomba, retreated to Vrin Shai, gathering up civilians as they went.”

“That’s fascinating,” Tallie said with heavy sarcasm, “but what the hell—”

“Shh,” said Rasha, poking her shoulder. “Jasmine doesn’t talk without a point.”

“I think I see where this is headin’,” Vandro added, grinning. “Go on, girl.”

Jasmine glanced at him expressionlessly, but continued. “The defenders were safe in Vrin Shai, which is virtually impervious to siege, but hiding behind its walls allowed the orcs free reign across the province. So Nambini tricked them. She led a force disguised as feeling refugees out of the city by cover of night, pretended to be accidentally spotted, and fled to the ford at Traisis, where she had sent actually discreet forces to prepare an ambush. The orcs had the superior numbers, but they were baited into a trap and routed. Nambini sacrificed a safe position in order to destroy what should have been a superior enemy on ground of her own choosing.”

“Okaaay,” said Darius, nodding. “I get the point of your enigmatic pronouncement now, and quite frankly, neither the mystery routine nor the history lesson were necessary. I take it you’ve got a slightly more detailed plan than that?”

Jasmine frowned, shifting her focus to the senior Guild members in the room. “How possible is it to move discreetly around the city with all this going on?”

“Extremely,” Grip said immediately. “One or two people can evade notice easily, assuming a modicum of competence. Best way would be to take the sewers. I assume Glory has a sewer access on the premises; every Guild agent with an actual house does.”

“I most certainly do,” Glory added with a smile, “and I appreciate your discretion, Quintessa, but I am also aware that you know where it is.”

“We’re kinda known for using sewers, aren’t we?” Ross asked. “I mean, ‘we’ being Eserites. Won’t they be expecting that?”

Grip smiled unpleasantly. “I’ll come along to guide you, Jasmine. If the dwarves manage an ambush, it’ll be us, in the sewers, with no witnesses. I am pretty sure we can make that work to our benefit. What’s your plan?”

Jasmine nodded and straightened. “Everyone please make preparations to move out as a group. I have a strategy in mind, but I need to go set the trap before we can bait and spring it.”

“Uh, that doesn’t really answer the question,” Darius pointed out. “What is the plan? I mean, didn’t we just hear about how letting this come to a fight isn’t a winning move right now? And here you are talking military strategy…”

Jasmine smiled faintly. “War is deception. We need to think like Eserites; think of it not as a battle, but…”

“A con,” said Vandro, nodding. “And you’re right, kiddo. A good general is the best con artist of all.”

“Where to?” Grip asked, unfolding herself from her chair. “Gonna gather up your buddy Schwartz?”

“I don’t think we’ll have time, much as I’m worried about him,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I really hope he’s safely in the Collegium… But no. We make for the Temple of Avei. Lead the way, Grip.”


“I’ve been in there for hours!” Schwartz hissed as Principia practically shoved him out of the waiting chamber and into the hall, Meesie squeaking a counterpoint to his indignation from atop his head. “Where in the Dark Lady’s name have you been? Didn’t my message express how urgent this is?!”

“Shh,” she said sharply, pushing the door shut. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I only just found out. And you are very lucky I did; believe me, it is not standard practice to hold people against their will when they come warning the Legion of…well, anything. Bishop Syrinx appears to have set preparations to keep you on ice if you came looking for me. I barely got here ahead of her; I really don’t want to think about what would have happened had she managed to corner you in that waiting room with nobody in the know.”

“Those soldiers were just doing their duty,” Ephanie said as she and the three other members of Squad One present fell in behind Principia, who was hurrying Schwartz down the hall. “Covrin aside, she doesn’t bother to personally recruit privates; they’d have known, and been able to tell the chain of command you were here. I doubt she’d have done any significant harm.”

“I make no assumptions and take no risks with regard to that woman,” Principia said darkly.

“You didn’t get any message, did you,” Schwartz said sourly.

“Not yours,” she replied, steering him down a side hall. “I just got word from a friend that you were here.”

“Who?”

She glanced at him sidelong with a faint smile. “Someone who knew you’d come here, knew there was a trap set, and was in a position to both warn me and distract Basra long enough for me to reach you first.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding, “I’m glad Jenoof!”

Principia had jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow. “Shut up, boy! No names, respect her cover. Basra is undoubtedly on her way right now.”

“That’s correct,” said a new voice. Nandi Shahai appeared from a side door, beckoning them forward. “And it’s a good thing I was keeping an ear out. We have minutes, Sergeant, maybe seconds.”

Principia glanced rapidly up and down the hall, then said curtly, “In here. What’d you hear?” she asked Shahai as she ushered Schwartz through the door. It led to a conference room of sorts, mostly open in plan but with chairs lining the walls and a blackboard at one of the narrow ends.

“Covrin kept Basra away as long as she could,” Shahai said very softly as the rest of Squad One filed in and fell into a defensive formation around Schwartz and Principia. “Then, in order to avoid blowing her cover and affirm her support, she had to reveal to Basra not only that Schwartz was here, but that you had found him and were taking him away. Both are en route.”

“Ugh, this fucks everything up,” Principia growled, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I had a strategy in place, which is now out the window; confronting her this early will put us right back at square one.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Schwartz said testily, “but none of this was my idea.”

“Not your fault,” Principia assured him, patting his arm. “You did the right thing, Herschel, coming here. And you’re right, if the dwarves are getting this pushy, we need to get word to the apprentices. I just hope you haven’t been delayed too long; if they’re safe in the Casino, good, but the Guild doesn’t like to keep its younglings cooped up. This is important; Basra Syrinx is a nuisance and a distraction, that’s all. I’ll figure out something else to deal with her when I have time to worry about it.”

“Isn’t that good to know,” Basra herself said brightly, striding into the room with Jenell hovering behind her. “Since I’m well aware that you could hear me coming, shall I interpret this as a threat?”

“Much as I enjoy our little dances, your Grace, I’m afraid I don’t have time,” Principia said with a polite smile. “I’ve just received word that our allies in the Guild may be in immediate danger. If you will excuse us…”

“Ah, yes. Hello, Mr. Schwartz.” The Bishop turned her pleasant expression on him, smirking faintly when Meesie chattered a warning and put off a tiny puff of sparks. “How lovely to see you again. Well! Since we are all here and I have, after all, been assigned to this same project, shall we go?”

“Who says you’re coming?” Schwartz snapped, glaring daggers at her.

“I actually can answer that,” Basra mused, “acting as I am on orders from the High Commander, but your question is avoiding the real issue, which is your apparent belief that you get a say in anything I do.” She smiled more widely, showing the tips of her teeth. “Or, for that matter, in anything that goes on in my presence. I had thought I made myself abundantly clear on this issue when we last spoke, but as it seems you are determined to tweak my nose, let me just remind you…” Her smile hardened, and suddenly there was something subtly wild in the set of her eyes. “You are not always going to have Locke’s skirts to hide behind, boy. Your ineptitude and irrelevance is your saving grace. Should you actually succeed, somehow, in irritating me—”

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” Basra said silkily after a moment, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“You heard me just fine,” Principia stated. The rest of her squad were staring at her with wide eyes, as was Jenell. The exception being Shahai, who merely tilted her head inquisitively. “You’ve been looking for a way to actually hurt me, which you didn’t have before. Well, you found one. Herschel is the child of an old friend and I care about him. Therefore, let me make this explicitly plain: harm him, and I will immediately end your life.”

“Oh, my dear Sergeant Locke,” Basra said, grinning outright. “You needn’t go and make this so easy for me. I was just beginning to enjoy the game.”

“I’ve explained this to you once, Basra. You may not recall; you were rather distracted by being humiliated and exiled that evening.” Principia grinned right back, just as nastily. “This is only a game because I am choosing, for reasons of my own, to play by the Sisterhood’s rules. You are in no way prepared to contend with me if I decide to throw everything to the wind and simply remove you. Push me hard enough that I’m willing to abandon my squad and the Legions, and you’ll be dead within a fortnight. Not immediately, because I’ll need to make certain preparations. You don’t deserve to go quickly or quietly.”

“Locke,” Basra said sibilantly, sliding her sword six inches out of its sheath, “I could spend the evening reciting all the things far deadlier than you which have tried to kill me, and which are now dead. Just in the last year; those have been the best ones, and every one of them frightened me more than you do—which is to say, not in the least little bit. If you want to stop playing politely, by all means, give me the excuse—”

“Unbelievable.”

Everyone in the room shifted to stare at the door, in which had appeared Jasmine, scowling in fury. A blonde woman in dark clothes was standing at her shoulder, one eyebrow raised sardonically.

“Here I thought I was fortunate,” Jasmine growled, stalking into the room, “to find two privates who just happened to know where the very people I wanted were. But I get here, and what do I find? Two grown, apparently intelligent, allegedly competent women, loudly indulging in a feud, in front of a Salyrite and their own troops…” She kicked the door shut, barely giving Grip a chance to make it inside. “With the door open, you unbelievable ninnies!”

“Excuse me,” Merry said sharply, “but just what do you think—”

“Lang, shush,” Casey hissed, nudging her with an elbow.

“Excuse you,” Merry snapped, but subsided at a glare from Ephanie.

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

“Silence!” Jasmine didn’t even look at her, taking two long strides toward Principia. “Lives are at stake. We have a duty to attend to. I will not have this, do you both understand? If you two are so determined to be up each other’s butts, I promise you in a completely non-metaphorical sense, I CAN MAKE THAT HAPPEN.” She stopped barely a foot from the sergeant, staring her down. “I realize that Commander Rouvad and your captain both indulge your antics to a point because of your usefulness, Sergeant Locke. I am not them. So long as you wear that uniform, you will conduct yourself in a manner which brings nothing but honor and dignity to it. That is the end of the subject. I will not have to speak of this to you again. Understood?”

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

She fell instantly silent when Jasmine took another step forward, glaring at her from inches away, now.

“There is exactly one acceptable response from you,” she said in deadly quiet.

“…yes, ma’am.”

“And that will be the entirety of your vocabulary in my presence for the forseeable future, unless you have an unassailable reason otherwise. Is that clear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who the hell is this kid?” Merry demanded. Despite her furious expression, she didn’t dare raise her voice above a stage whisper.

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

“And as for you, Syrinx.” Jasmine turned to the Bishop, her expression not lightening in the slightest. “I’ve spoken with the High Commander about you at some length.”

“Oh, have you now,” Basra said impassively.

“Your issues,” Jasmine stated, “are not my responsibility. You are not under my command. I can’t give you orders, as you well know. So let me be plain: in no way does that mean you don’t need to concern yourself with me.”

The room lit up with a golden glow of such intensity that most of them had to avert their eyes. The eagle wings which spread from behind Jasmine barely had space to extend themselves.

“Ohhh,” Merry whispered. “Kay, I’m up to speed.”

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

“You know where the lines are drawn, Syrinx,” Trissiny said, holding the Bishop’s gaze. “Cross them again, and it’s not going to matter how good you are with that sword. Put it back in the sheath.”

After a moment of silence so complete that the faintest chiming of the paladin’s aura could be detected at the very edge of hearing, Basra obeyed.

“And unless you want to learn whether you can outsmart a spear of divine light through your heart, you will henceforth behave yourself no less assiduously than Locke. Have I made myself plain?”

After another beat, Basra incongruously smiled. “Admirably so, General.”

“Fine.” The golden light suddenly winked out, leaving them blinking, and she turned her back on the Bishop and the Sergeant. “Schwartz, I’m really glad to see you’re safe. We were all worried.”

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

Trissiny grimaced. “And…I would appreciate it if you’d keep all of this to yourself.”

“I, um, of course!” He swallowed heavily. “I mean, though, wow, I never… That is, uh, mum’s the word.”

Meesie chirped smugly.

“For the rest of you,” Ephanie added, looking pointedly at Merry and Casey, “that is an order.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the entire rest of the squad chorused, with the exception of Principia, whose face was uncharacteristically devoid of expression.

Trissiny shook her head. “With that out of the way, I came here for a reason. Sergeant Locke, I am activating your squad. I will need you formed up and on the march as quickly as possible. Most of you, that is; designate your most best runner to send a message across the city. There are more reinforcements I need gathered.”

“That’s not necessary,” Basra said smoothly. “Squad One function splendidly at a unit, and are already under strength without being split up. I can fetch whoever else you need, General Avelea.”

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

“If you’re concerned about my response to being badgered and threatened, good,” Basra continued without apparent rancor. “That’s something you should consider before risking throwing away an ally in the future.”

“Do you really think,” Trissiny said flatly, “after what I just walked in on, you are in a position to lecture me?”

“I am correcting you,” Basra replied, “because I consider you the most promising paladin we have had in the last thousand years. Not one of your predecessors would even have thought to seek out the expanded skill set and mindset you are. But sooner rather than later, you’re going to find yourself dealing with someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart, and then slip-ups like that will cost you. For now,” she nodded deeply, nearly a bow, “how can I help?”

“Oh, please,” Grip said, dripping scorn. “Tell me you’re not buying that load of crap.”

“Grip,” Trissiny said, turning slowly to face her, “we are standing in the Temple of Avei. I can throw you in a cell just for what I’ve seen you do tonight. And that’s only talking legally; physically, I can throw you anywhere I want. Shut. Up.”

Grip, for some reason, grinned in evident delight, but said nothing in response.

“All right, as for the rest of you.” Trissiny turned back to face the soldiers, the Bishop, and Schwartz. “Here are your orders.”

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11 – 29

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“I can handle this,” Rasha insisted at the front door of Glory’s house five minutes later.

“Rasha,” Jasmine said, firmly but kindly. “You are literally swaying as you speak. You haven’t slept all night. It doesn’t make sense to subject yourself to more of this, so long as you have any better option.”

“And I assure you, this is a much better option,” Glory added with a smile, coming up behind him to lay a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I’ll loan you the best guest room, right next to mine.”

“I am just so sick of being the weak link around here,” Rasha whispered, clenching his fists. If nothing else, it helped him straighten up and hold his posture.

“Whoah, that’s enough of that kinda talk,” Tallie declared. Having been the first to the door, she now turned and pushed back through the small crowd which had formed in the foyer, elbowing Layla aside with more energy than was necessary. She wrapped her arms around Rasha in a hug, the top of his head barely coming past her shoulder. “You’ve had a shitty night, that’s all. We’re not refusing to let you help; that’s the whole point of this, Rasha. We’re gonna need you soon, and for that, you need to be rested up.”

He sighed heavily, though after a moment he un-clenched enough to hug her back—briefly. Then he pulled insistently away. “All right. I guess. Fine. But don’t be too long.”

“Pfft, what’s the worst that could happen?” Darius said airily. “All we’re doing is traipsing through the suddenly-freezing streets of the city where dwarven spies are plotting to ambush and do horrible things to us, to rescue our witch friend who they’re also going to be ambushing, when we have no idea where the hell he even is. This is a Sunday stroll through the park! Really, Rasha, you’re not gonna miss anything.”

“Whose idea was it to give him talking privileges?” Ross wondered aloud.

“And on that subject.” Darius’s aspect suddenly sobered considerably and he turned to level a finger a Layla. “You are not coming. So let’s get the tantrum and the shouting out of the way right now, because we really do not have time to stretch this out.”

“Honestly, Darius, you’ve turned into the most frightful boor,” she sniffed. “I can see I shall be forced to spend a great deal of time re-acquainting you with the concept of basic manners. Of course I’m not coming; do you really think I’m daft enough to place myself in that kind of danger? You’re the Eserites, here. I assume they’ve taught you something in that Guild of yours.”

“Huh,” he said, staring at her in evident bemusement. “That’s…strangely forward-thinking of you. Are you feeling all right, sis?”

“Feel free to take my carriage,” she said, ignoring that and turning to Jasmine, who so far was the only other member of the group she seemed inclined to address directly. “I would prefer that Talvers remain here, if it pleases our hostess, but Ralph’s uniform has sufficient bundling for the cold, and you may find him useful. Do try not to let him be hurt, but if you are attacked, don’t worry about the carriage. If agents of the Svennish government damage it, I can sue the embassy. I’ve been wanting a new one anyway, and Father has been most obstinate about upgrading to the enchanted variety.”

“I will try to keep all that in mind,” Jasmine said solemnly. Tallie rolled her eyes so exuberantly she nearly tipped over backward.

“And,” Layla added in a quieter tone, “I realize this is a lot to ask, but please see that my brother doesn’t take any needless risks. If it proves possible.”

“Oh, we’ll manage him,” Jasmine promised her with a smile. “Tallie and I have had some practice in the art. There are ways.”

“They’re called boobs,” Tallie added helpfully. “Yours don’t count for the purpose. I mean, or so I would hope. Nothing would surprise me to learn about you nobles.”

Layla sniffed once more, then turned up her nose and pointedly gave Tallie the cold shoulder. “I shall expect to see you back by dinner at the latest, Darius. If I have to chase you down again, I shall be most put out.”

“Well, you heard her, ladies and Ross,” Darius said cheerfully, opening the door. “We better get this done quick-like, or perish in the attempt. C’mon, chop chop.”

Outside on the front step, they paused, tucking hands into coat pockets.

“Brr,” Ross said, peering up at the sky. “Carriage sounds pretty good.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Tallie said flatly. “Let’s all ride in warmth and comfort and make what’s-his-name sit up top in the cold. Doesn’t matter, he’s just a servant. You’d fit right in with the fancy crowd, Ross.”

“Stop that,” Jasmine said irritably. “Whatever your issue is with nobles, don’t take it out on Ross, of all people.”

“Also, his name is Ralph,” Darius added. “Which you know, and would have remembered if you wanted to make a complaint like that with any credibility. Now seriously, are we riding or not? Because time is going to be a factor, here, and this weather is not kidding around.”

Indeed, the typical cloud cover over Tiraas currently hung lower and heavier than was the norm, clearly threatening precipitation. Given the temperature, anything that fell from above was likely to take the form of snow or sleet.

“No,” Jasmine said slowly, frowning in thought. “No…I think we should stay on foot. To be approachable.”

“Approachable by who, for fuck’s sake?” Tallie exclaimed. “The only people we’re likely to run into who’ll care about us at all are the damn dwarves stalking us.”

“Exactly.”

“What?”

“Think about it,” Ross rumbled. “All we can do is go to the Salyrite temple. Dwarves’ll know that; we’re likely to meet ’em. And if they ambush us…”

“Then we’ll see how much they enjoy the outcome of that,” Jasmine said flatly. “Stay on main streets, on public sidewalks, in full view. Ignore any verbal overtures; if they gives us an excuse to claim self-defense, we’ll take it. And any police who become involved will take our side.”

“I like this plan,” said Darius. “Right off the bat I can see half a dozen holes in it, but god damn I am sick of being the mouse in this game. Claws out, let’s do it.”

Tallie shivered and wrapped arms around herself. “All right, well, good, then I hope you’re all carrying the cash Style doled out for Pick’s job. Cos first thing we’re doing if we’re not gonna ride is stop and get some freaking scarves.”


“I just don’t see the wisdom in this,” Schwartz protested. “Or the point, now. I mean, didn’t you only need to gather allies because you were trying to deal with the Bishop alone? And that’s changed now.”

Jenell sighed, her breath making a soft puff of mist in the chilling air. “Yes, fine, I am glad to have allies, but…that was never exactly the point, Herschel. You don’t understand the position I’m in. Alone is part of it; vulnerable is the worst.” She kept her eyes forward as they walked, the expression on her disguised face flat and grim. “There really isn’t anything I hate more than that. Always at someone’s mercy, unable to act, without resources. And even with you all working at Basra, I’m still in that position, don’t you see? All of you are out of my reach, except when I take extraordinary measures to have an hour to myself, like today. Even if I could contact you regularly… You answer to your Bishop and the College. Locke is about as responsive to other people’s plans as a feral cat. And Ami. Don’t get me wrong, I like Ami. But bards…are bards.” She finally shifted her head to look up at him, her expression still controlled, but not so much so that he couldn’t see the heartbreaking hint of pleading she was trying to suppress. “I need resources of my own, Herschel. Something I can use against Basra. Something. Anything.”

He drew in a deep breath, wincing. It was almost physically painful, seeing her reduced to this. “I hear you, Jenell, and I’m doing my best to understand your position. But…these guys. I mean, I rather like them all, myself, but they’re Eserites, and not even well-trained ones. They’ve got the independent spirit without all the skill. Don’t repeat this to any of them, but honestly, this group is not a good peg on which to hang your hopes.”

She let out a low, bitter laugh. “Oh, I know that, believe me. But they’re what I have to work with, and the facts of their situation mean they have hooks I can grab. Look, the point of sending them to the Finder’s Fee was to meet both Basra’s objectives and mine. I have to get them into Basra’s fold to keep her off my back; I need to do it in a way that carefully points out what a horror she is so they’ll be wary and I’ll be able to leverage them when the time comes. That’s a very delicate line to walk, Herschel, and if it was anybody but Eserites—or maybe bards—I’d say it was impossible. This is a really rare opportunity.”

“I still almost can’t credit it,” he muttered. “Why would Bishop Syrinx cultivate contacts in a place like that?”

“Well, she wanted mages she could call on for shifty, extra-legal work. It’s not like she could knock on Bishop Throale’s door and ask for a Salyrite to scry on Locke’s activities, now is it?” She let out another misty huff of annoyance. “Now I have to come up with a new plan. Basra has other contacts, but… Hell, I hope I haven’t burned my bridges with that group anyway. After sending them into what was apparently a trap…”

“It wasn’t your trap, and they all know that,” he assured her. “The mess in Glass Alley wasn’t your fault or theirs. I… All right, look, I can probably get them to meet with you. If you’ve got something useful to offer them, I don’t get the feeling they’re in a position to turn up their noses at it. But it’ll need more. That mysterious routine you tried last time isn’t likely to appeal again. Too much uncertainty already…”

“I know,” she said moodily. “Believe me, I know. All right, just… Please tell them you met me and that I’m interested in helping, all right? I will think of something else. I’ll have to, quickly. It’ll be tricky to speak with you again, I absolutely cannot be found talking to you or Basra will completely flip her shit, but I can get you messages at the Collegium, still. Right?”

“Uh, right,” he agreed, frowning. “But, honestly, Jenell, there are other considerations here besides you. Hasn’t it occurred to you that involving these kids with Syrinx is maybe kind of cruel to them?”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said with grim amusement. “Those kids aren’t all what they seem. There’s one in the group whom even Basra won’t dare harm, and also won’t antagonize by harming any of the others. They might be the only people safe around her, at least for the time being.”

“Well, that isn’t mysterious at all,” he said testily. “Just once, I’d like to know the whole of what’s happening around here…”

“Wouldn’t we all,” she agreed, patting his arm. “I’m sorry, Herschel, I’d like to bring you into the loop, but there are secrets here that go way over even Basra’s head; spilling those beans could be more than my life is worth. Just…trust me, you’ll probably be safer with those apprentices than anywhere else, too.”

She stopped suddenly, both speaking and walking. Schwartz trailed to a halt, too, blinking at her in surprise, then followed her gaze up the sidewalk ahead of them. Immediately, he froze as well.

He had followed main roads to the Great Hall, but now, on the way back, he’d let Jenell set their course, which mostly consisted of less-trafficked back streets; she was somewhat justifiably paranoid about being seen by the wrong people, even in disguise. Now they were passing through a block of factories, down a wide side street meant to provide rear access to these buildings for delivery trucks. Even just after midday, there were no deliveries or anyone else about at present. With the heavy precipitation clearly imminent, even the nearby factories had shut down, their crackling antennae dimming to the occasional spark of unformed arcane residue. Tiraas itself was slowing down, as people who had not been dressed for the sudden cold fled into whatever indoors they could.

But someone had just stepped out of an alley directly in front of them, facing the two and just standing there. A short, stocky someone with a red beard.

“Oh, bloody hell,” Schwartz whispered.

“One of those dwarves?” Jenell murmured.

“Yes. At least I think—” He broke off, tensing, as the dwarf had started toward them. Schwartz reflexively stepped forward, planting himself ahead of Jenell and holding out his arm as if to block access to her, and only realizing belatedly how utterly silly that was, interposing his thin frame between the threat and the trained soldier.

Anyhow, physical force wasn’t where his strength lay. He snapped his fingers, and with a sharp pop and a tiny cascade of harmless sparks, Meesie appeared on his shoulder. She immediately bristled like a scared cat, chattering a tiny reprimand at the approaching dwarf.

“Good evening, Mr. Schwartz,” he said amiably. “And to your companion. Companions, I suppose I should say,” he added with a genial smile at Meesie.

“No,” Schwartz snapped.

The dwarf stopped, a few yards still distant, and regarded him with a calmly curious expression. “Oh? No? Forgive me, but in my studies of Tiraan formality, I never encountered that response to a simple greeting. Is there some piece to this ritual I am missing?”

“The piece where you go away,” Schwartz replied. “I’m not interested, and I’m not doing this. Leave me alone.”

The dwarf heaved a sigh. “Honestly, I don’t know where all this obstinacy comes from. I do believe you’re spending too much time around those Eserites, Mr. Schwartz. All I seek, all I have ever asked for, is a simple conversation.”

“Well, you can—” He broke off at the sudden pressure of Jenell’s fingers on his arm.

“We’re alone here, Herschel,” she murmured. “No telling what or who is down these side alleys. And more information always beats less. If he wants to talk politely…do.”

Schwartz hesitated, glancing back and forth between her and the dwarf. Meesie growled a shrill warning.

“What an admirably sensible young lady,” the dwarf said, doffing his hat courteously to Jenell. “Forgive my presumption in pointing it out, but perhaps this is more the style of company you should keep. She does seem to be a positive influence.”

“Fine,” he said curtly. “Speak your piece and have done with it.”

“Very good,” the dwarf replied, nodding to him. “Really, my needs are simple. You were present at the interrupted exchange wherein my companions and I sought to acquire those devices which were then seized by the Silver Legion. The Sisterhood of Avei, unfortunately, is quite impenetrable, which renders them sadly beyond our grasp. Without that option, I have an all the more urgent need to learn what I can of the provenance of those devices. Our only lead is within the Thieves’ Guild.”

“Well, I certainly can’t help you with that,” Schwartz said warily.

“Oh, to be sure, I would hardly expect it of you,” the dwarf agreed with a pleasant smile. “But your young friends can. Eserites, you see, are rather hard on their would-be members. The majority of any group of apprentices to the Guild are going to wash out anyway, for one reason or another. The only thing I want of those young people is their help finding information to which I do not have access, and they may. I am prepared to compensate them most generously, even to the point of shielding them from the Thieves’ Guild, should the nature of our association happen to annoy the Guild’s leadership.”

“And you think you can actually do that?” Schwartz asked skeptically.

The dwarf’s smile widened by a hair. “The Guild has no presence in the Five Kingdoms. That is not to say they have never tried to establish one. Here, in the Empire, we are at something of a disadvantage in dealing with them. Where I am from, that state is decisively reversed.”

“Fine,” Schwartz snapped. “I’ll tell them what you said. Now good night.”

“Ah, yes,” the dwarf said, shaking his head regretfully. “Well, I’m afraid matters have recently become rather more complicated than that.”

“Of course they have,” Jenell muttered. Schwartz noted that she had offered no objection to his protective stance; if anything, she had edged more behind him. Not fear, he realized, at least not for her safety; she could face severe consequences from other corners if she were recognized.

“Your friends,” the dwarf said in a solicitous tone, “have embarked on an unwisely aggressive course. Specifically, it seems they intend to ask you, Mr. Schwartz, to use your particular skills to track myself and my associates. Now, it should go without saying that we take all reasonable precautions, but the nature of fae magic, as I’m sure you’re aware, makes it rather difficult to thwart. So many unknowable variables.” He shook his head. “This could quickly become a very disagreeable situation for us all. In the interests of everyone continuing to get along, I’m prepared to provide you with anything you reasonably request, in exchange for your assurance that you will not do them this favor.”

Schwartz stared at him, then turned his head to look at Jenell’s eyes. Meesie growled again.

He could see the same thought on her face that was ringing in his own skull. Foreign agents, the kind of people willing and capable to oppose the Guild, owing him a favor? What he couldn’t do with that. Odds are these people could manage to threaten even Syrinx’s carefully laid schemes.

Then Jenell’s expression closed down, and she shook her head almost imperceptibly. Schwartz gave her a tiny nod of agreement.

It was just too risky. They knew too little about these people. The whole problem with Syrinx was the multiplicity of parties and agendas involved, preventing them from knowing what was happening, what anyone was up to, what they could do without incurring retaliation. Adding another wildly unknowable variable to the mix could tip the whole thing into disaster.

“I am not,” he said carefully, “going to make you any promises. I do not trust you, and quite frankly, I don’t like you. Now if you will excuse us.”

The dwarf sighed softly. “Now, Mr. Schwartz, I’m afraid you are being both obstinate and disingenuous. That is tantamount to a declaration of your intention to inconvenience me, and we both know it. I’m certain you mother did not raise you to behave this way.” He smiled, again, just as pleasantly as always. “Of course, it must be hard, raising two children alone. I’m sure she has an easier time of things now, with just your sister to think of. And Melody will be of an age to move out on her own soon enough.”

Meesie burst into flames, screeching in fury. Jenell had gone pale, even behind the already-pale face of her enchanted disguise.

Schwartz, though, felt a sudden and total calm descend over him. Somewhere deep beneath it, his heart was thudding in his chest, but it was a strangely distant thing. Unbidden, his senses expanded, taking in the magic around them. The spirits, the currents of life, all the perceptions which made up the realm of the fae.

“Have you ever been to Athan’Khar?” he heard himself ask evenly.

The dwarf blinked. “Forgive me, but I don’t see—”

“I have,” Schwartz continued. “You should visit sometime. Just so you can appreciate how very much you don’t scare me, you contemptible little piece of shit.”

He snatched Meesie off his shoulder, the flames wreathing her not so much as singeing his fingers, and hurled her forward.

An explosion of fire occurred in midair halfway between Schwartz and the dwarf, and in the next moment, his quarry had been bowled over backward, a pony-sized leonine creature wrought from pure crimson flame landing on him.

Meesie opened a maw filled with fire-sculpted fangs and roared directly into the fallen dwarf’s face. The paw planted on his chest, already the size of a plate, flexed, revealing blazing claws which ripped five perfect rents in his suit.

Wreathed in an awareness of the currents of magic around him, Schwartz felt the life force of the second dwarf who darted out of another alley behind them, sensed the enchanted objects he wore which made his approach silent.

He reached out through the link with his familiar spirits, finding them in total accord with his purpose. Upward he stretched with his mind, to the towering antenna of the dormant factory behind which they stood. Dormant, with only the faintest residual flickers of energy along its length—but even residual flickers along a four-story coil made a torrent of destructive power when seized and directed.

Lightning arced from the antenna, scarring the side of the factory as it snapped downward and blasted the approaching dwarf off his feet. He fell without a cry and skidded another yard across the pavement before falling still, smoking in the cold air.

Schwartz stepped forward, coming up beside Meesie, who was snarling at the pinned dwarf and demanding his full attention. He laid a hand on the seething flames that made up her mane.

“If you attack my family,” he said quietly, “you’ll find that my mother is even less afraid of you than I am, and considerably more willing to resort to violence. I’m assuming, here, that you think yourself in a position where you don’t have to care about the fallout of assaulting an Imperial sheriff, so you’d better think about what kind of woman is given that position in a frontier town. If you ever threaten my family again, though.” He leaned forward, holding silent until the dwarf tore his eyes from Meesie’s burning fangs to meet his gaze. “I swear on Salyrene’s name, I will make you beg before I finish you.”

Without straightening, he flung out a hand, grasping at the natural cold in the very atmosphere. Moisture congealed out of the air itself, solidifying into a cluster of horizontal icicles hovering beside him. With another thought, he called up a blast of wind, ruffling everyone’s hair and clothes and causing Meesie’s fire to flicker, and most importantly, sending those jagged shafts of ice at the mouth of another alley as fast as bolts from a crossbow.

The dwarf who had poked her head out around that corner, taking aim at him with a wand, fell back with a shriek of pain, pierced in five places by spears of ice.

“I’m glad…Lucy…suggested we have this talk,” Schwartz said, finally drawing himself back up to his full height. He had been within a hair’s breadth of addressing her properly, but Jenell definitely didn’t want her real name used here. He made a mental note never to tell her Lucy had been his first dog. “I think we understand each other a bit better, now. C’mon, Lucy, let’s get out of here.”

He waited for her to catch up to him, eyeing the snarling Meesie and the pinned dwarf as she passed. Jenell didn’t speak until they had moved a dozen yards further up the street at a long stride.

“You’re just going to leave her there?”

“She’ll hold him long enough for us to get away,” he said quietly, chancing a glance back. The dwarf, sensibly, seemed to be offering Meesie no resistance. “She can’t hold that form but for a few minutes. Shorter if anything damages her; if he pulls a wand and shoots her at that range, that’ll be the end of it.”

“Ah,” she said tersely. “And then she’ll reappear with you.”

He looked at her in surprise. “How’d you know that?”

“I remember. From Athan’Khar. That monster.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Imperial Square is just a few blocks up,” she said quickly, managing to lengthen her stride further. Schwartz, whose legs were longer anyway, had no trouble keeping up. “That’s public enough we should be safe; we have to split up there. Disguise or no, I cannot be seen with you.”

“I understand.”

Again, she looked uncertainly up at him. “What’ll you do next?”

“I should go…” He trailed off. Where? Back to the Collegium? To the Guild? Either of those places would be safe, assuming the Guild would let him in… He had to find the apprentices and warn them.

“Go to the Temple of Avei,” she said when he failed to produce an answer. “I’ll take a side entrance; you go in the front. You can get through the temple to the Legion fortress in the back. Warn Locke. She can get word to the Eserites without being in nearly as much danger as you.”

“Ah. Right. That’s good thinking.”

“I’m not just a pretty face,” she said grimly. “…you know, if you want some real certainty, you could have Meesie finish him off.”

Schwartz grimaced and shook his head. “No. I can’t.”

“Herschel, if things keep going the way they have been, I don’t think you’re going to have the luxury of being this squeamish.”

“I know,” he said curtly. “But it’s not just that. The bastard threatened my family, Jenell. He’s part of a group, and he didn’t just do that on a whim. They’ve researched me, they know who I’m connected to. I need one of them left alive to explain to the others what a very bad idea that is.”

They speed-walked in silence for nearly a minute before Meesie suddenly reappeared on his shoulder. She squeaked eagerly, bounding onto Schwart’z head and squirming down into a little nest in his hair, nose pointed forward. By unspoken consensus, Schwartz and Jenell both increased their speed until they were nearly running.

“After this,” she said after another long moment, slightly out of breath, “I’m even gladder to have you along, Herschel.”

“Thanks,” he panted, not bothering to try voicing his full feelings. Glad he was along? That made one of them.

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11 – 28

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Schwartz shivered and rubbed his upper arms once he made it inside. Late as he was, a moment to let the warmth of the restaurant soak in was necessary; the temperature had plummeted quite suddenly, as if Tiraas had been abruptly reminded what season it was supposed to be. Luckily—or perhaps deliberately, warm winter or no—two large braziers flanked the entryway, doing a great deal to cut the chill that drifted inside.

The Great Hall served Stalweiss food, and its décor was clearly meant to be evocative of the Stalrange in all its mostly mythical barbaric glory. Set up to resemble a warlord’s feast hall, it was decorated with tapestries and stuffed heads, the tables hewn from coarse-looking wood, the waitresses dressed in furs that were far more flattering than practical. Schwartz wondered offhandedly, as he scanned the lunch crowd for his “date,” if this wasn’t all rather offensive, ethnically speaking. He himself was Stalweiss by blood, but like a lot of such nowadays, had his roots in the prairie and little real affinity for the old country. Still, the “barbarian” mythos that clung to the Stalrange didn’t do its inhabitants any favors. Even now, a century after Horsebutt’s disappearance, those were still the poorest provinces in the Empire.

“G’day, sir,” said the young woman in a low-cut dress behind the hostess’s desk. “Table for one?”

“I’m, ah, actually meeting someone,” he said, still shuffling his feet to restore the blood to them. He wore the heavier version of his cult’s robes, but no actual coat. If it kept up this way he’d have to use spells to make it back to the Collegium without getting frostbite… “Have you seen a—”

“You’re late.”

He blinked in confusion at the blonde girl who had slipped out of the crowd and taken his arm, frowning up at him. That voice…

Of course. Embarrassingly, it had taken him a couple of seconds to catch on, but now, looking closer, he could perceive the disguise spell. Commercially available, that; even not being an arcane specialist, any Salyrite would be able to recognize the most common enchantments. The voice matched, though, as did her eyes. Jenell had brown eyes just the faintest bit lighter than usual, like molasses swirled with a hint of honey…

Her cheeks colored slightly under his intent gaze—really, that was a good charm she’d picked up if it conveyed that, a lot of the cheaper ones blunted such subtle changes—and she tugged at his arm. “I have a table and tea. Haven’t ordered food yet; I was starting to fear they’d throw me out before you showed up. Where’ve you been?”

“I’m sorry,” he said with a wince as she led him to a secluded corner table. This place wasn’t terribly well-lit, and its booths seemed to have been designed with privacy in mind. He was beginning to feel depressingly familiar with all the places in Tiraas that offered such discreet nooks, what with one thing and another. “I had a, ah, bit of a mishap with a spell I tried… Ami had to fetch one of my superiors to straighten it out, and then she insisted on dressing me down for being careless before she’d let me go. Um, she being Archon Stross, not Ami.”

Jenell had slid into the bench opposite him while he spoke, but had frozen. “Ami?”

“Oh, right, I guess you didn’t know…” He smiled feebly. “She’s, um…helping.”

“Helping…with what?” she demanded.

Schwartz made a helpless gesture. “Everything? All this? What I, you know, assumed you’d want to talk about…”

He watched her disguised face closely, but her expression gave nothing away now. Of course, he had forced himself to assume all this was about Syrinx, but a large part of him refused to abandon the hope that she’d just wanted to see him.

After a moment, Jenell sighed, seemingly forcing herself to relax.

“All this. Right. Well.” She raised her eyes to his again, and now the very faintest smile appeared on her lips. If he wasn’t imagining things, it seemed almost as hesitant as he felt. “So…how’s Meesie?”

“Meesie is fine,” he said, grinning in spite of himself. “Not much keeps her down. I’m a little surprised you’d ask, though. Your message specified not to have her out when I came…”

“Herschel, I’m trying to be discreet, here,” she said with fond exasperation, and he felt his hopes climbing again, despite his better judgment. “Meesie is…attention-getting. Of course I don’t have anything against her, she’s adorable. Maybe someday soon I’ll be able to tell her so in person.”

“I would like that,” he said, then made an effort to control his foolish smile. “I mean, uh, I’m sure she would like to see you too. She misses you.”

Jenell actually blushed again, then straightened her posture and cleared her throat. “Well. Um. I actually did want to talk to you about more serious things than catching up. Herschel, the information I have is thirdhand, but it says you’re pursuing some kind of vendetta against Bishop Syrinx. Please tell me I have it wrong?”

Schwartz felt the smile slip away from his face. “I… Well. I prefer not to think of it in those terms. Revenge has never much appealed to me, you know? But…yeah, I guess that’s a word.”

Again she sighed, more heavily this time. “Herschel. Why the hell would you try something like this?”

He stared at her. “How can you even ask me that?”

The silence which followed was painfully awkward. Fortunately, it was soon interrupted.

“Ah, he arrives!” the waitress said cheerfully, materializing next to them with a sunny smile and a pencil poised over her notepad. “What’re we having, friends?”

“Roast quail,” Jenell said immediately and a little abruptly. Schwartz opened his mouth and only belatedly realized there was a menu lying on the table, now under her hand. Well, there had probably been nothing else to read while she’d been waiting for him. “And the peppered potatoes.”

“Good choice!” the waitress said cheerily. “That’ll feed two—anything you want to add, sir?”

“Actually, no, that sounds rather good,” Schwartz said lamely. He didn’t eat out much and had definitely never lived in a style that involved people serving him; ordering food from waitstaff was sufficiently unfamiliar to feel awkward.

“And anything stronger than the tea to drink? Or a fresh pot?”

“No, thank you,” Jenell said primly. “That will be all.”

“Very good! I’ll be back before you know it.” The girl smiled quickly at them both, then sashayed out of sight. Schwartz let out a soft breath of relief.

“Herschel,” Jenell said quietly, staring at him, “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re doing. Basra Syrinx is dangerous.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t,” she snapped. “You have no idea what she’s capable of.”

“Excuse me, but in fact, I do. I didn’t just come haring off to Tiraas to try and poison her toothbrush or some such nonsense; give me credit for a little sense!”

“Very little,” she said skeptically.

“Look,” he retorted, nettled now, “if I’d done anything to attack the Bishop, you would know. And yes, that probably would have ended quickly and poorly for me. Don’t forget, I have seen her in action. I am being careful, Jenell. All I’m doing right now is making preparations.”

“Preparations to do what?”

“Well…that’s the question, isn’t it?” He shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m gathering information, skills, and allies. Ami was already after Syrinx—apparently the whole reason she stayed with us in Viridill was to study the Bishop in action. She was only pretending to be fooled by Syrinx’s explanation of their last encounter; being strung up for Huntsmen wasn’t an experience she was going to forget quickly. And I’ve been making friends in the Thieves’ Guild, not to mention Sergeant Locke.”

“Oh, yes,” she said darkly. “That. Herschel… The fact is, if you were ready to play this game, you wouldn’t be casually spilling these details to someone you know works for Basra. How can you be sure I’m not going to go straight to her with all this?”

“Principia has told me things,” he said quietly. “About how you helped her squad before. She says you can be trusted. But…maybe you’re right, or at least in what I think you’re driving at. I do trust you, Jenell. And…maybe just because I choose to, not because it makes sense.”

Again, she blushed, then quickly cleared her throat and pressed on. “I do not need to be rescued, Herschel.”

“I know,” he said simply.

“Then why are you doing this?”

Schwartz heaved a sigh of his own. “I guess… I do want to help you, Jenell. Not to sweep you away or anything, I know you have your reasons. You wouldn’t be putting up with the Bishop otherwise. But… Look, I don’t know the details, but with what I do know, I can read between the lines. Syrinx was in Viridill as some kind of punishment for something, wasn’t she? Maybe what she did to Ami and Principia and the others, I guess the timing would be about right. Fixing that mess was how she earned her way back here. And I helped her do it. Whatever she does next…I have some responsibility there.” He raised his eyes back to hers, squaring his shoulders. “Don’t worry, I don’t have any delusions about being some kind of hero. Principia is a lot smarter and a lot better at this stuff than I. For that matter, so is Ami, and I get the feeling so are you. I’m just…helping. Because I need to. I owe…everyone…that much.”

She was quiet for a long moment, staring at the table, before lifting her head to meet his gaze. “All right. Okay. I…” Jenell paused to swallow heavily. “Ami’s smart, that’s true, and she’s a bard; I know a bit about what they teach them. Locke… Basra has files on her, things she pulled for some project of the Archpope’s some time ago and brought out again the first time Locke started causing her trouble. Honestly, Herschel, I’m not sure how you got mixed up with Principia Locke, but that woman just might be more dangerous than Basra.”

“She was a friend of my father’s,” he said. “And—”

“And she’s useful to know, and she has plenty of reason of her own to want Basra taken down,” Jenell said, nodding. “Just…be careful. You never know what’s going on between those pointy ears. You do know that Basra’s aware you’re after her?”

“Yes, that’s all according to plan,” he said quickly, another smile breaking across his face. “Principia said she put that out in front of Basra to make me seem harmless, so I can maneuver around without having to worry about being spotted. If I am, she’ll thinking nothing of it. Plus, if she does anything to me, for any reason, she’ll be called down for it by the High Commander. I do say it was all rather clever.”

“It is, at that,” Jenell mused. “Yes…I see how having Locke in could be a help. I’ve never been able to approach her, even when she offered. Basra doesn’t give me that much leeway, and Locke is close enough to the Sisterhood I felt it wasn’t worth the risk… All right, all this could work out. With the lot of us working together, perhaps we can bring her down. And between you and Ami, maybe I can actually coordinate with Locke…”

He nodded eagerly. “Yes, that’s what—”

“But.” Jenell’s gaze snapped back to his, and there was something purely ferocious behind her eyes. “I want it clearly understood, by all of you. I will be the one to finish this. When the time comes, she’s mine.” Her hands on the table clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms. “I’ve damn well earned that.”

Schwartz nodded. “I…um. Yes. I’ll back you up on that. And I’ll tell them.”

“Good.” She drew in a calming breath and let it out slowly, relaxing her hands. “All right…good. Now, more practically speaking, did you visit the magic shop I told you to in my note? I also sent some Eserites there who you’ll find it useful to know, but I guess it’s too much to hope they came by at the same time…”

“Oh, um, well, actually…” He grinned weakly. “I did meet them! Those are the Eserite friends I was telling you about. But, um…none of us made it to the shop.”

She stared at him. “What?”

“Well, there was a bit of a…an altercation, you might say. The Guild underboss for that district got involved, and that got us mixed up in Thieves’ Guild politics, and what with one thing and another… We, uh, never actually got to see the Finder’s Fee. And, um, all of us are effectively banned from Glass Alley now.”

Jenell clapped a hand over her eyes. “Those idiots!”


To no one’s particular surprise, having Layla along dramatically increased the amount of pleasantries and formalities involved in the whole process. Upon arriving at Glory’s townhouse, she had swept to the head of the group and insisted upon taking the lead conversationally as well, directing the Butler to announce them formally. Despite the general disinclination of Butlers to take direction from anyone but their contract holder, he seemed to approve of this. At any rate, he bestowed upon Layla a very subtle smile of approbation, mild enough not to be a departure from protocol but still clear—really, Butler training must be something else—and obliged her by announcing all six of them, by name, in the order in which they arrived.

Layla had made a point of introducing her brother by full name and title; he rolled his eyes and grimaced, but didn’t bother arguing.

The wide upper room of Glory’s house in which they were received was clearly the space in which she held her larger gatherings, and the lady of the house greeted them as gracefully as befit her position, perhaps picking up Layla’s cue. At any rate, there was no hint of mockery or condescension in her voice or bearing as she made an especial point of welcoming the Lady Layla. There followed what seemed like absolutely no end of small talk.

It was just such an honor for Layla to have the opportunity to call upon Miss Sharvineh, oh but not at all, it was she who was honored by an unexpected visit from such an esteemed young lady, and Layla simply must join one of Glory’s parties in a few years when she was old enough that this wouldn’t cause a scandal, and of course Layla would be simply delighted beyond words to oblige, and so on, and so forth. Moments became minutes, and the apprentices’ patience began to fray. Darius, perhaps prompted back into old habits by the sudden presence of his sister, managed to look bored and annoyed, yet too well-bred to reveal that he was bored and annoyed. Jasmine had fallen into a parade rest stance, then immediately shifted out of it and into a deliberately casual pose that just made her look more uncomfortable. Tallie, Ross, and Rasha were left to peer around at the rich furnishings and generally feel awkward.

“Please, everyone, come in,” Glory said smoothly, finally finding what she deemed a suitable segue from Layla’s effusive introductions. “I’ll not have guests standing around uncomfortably. Smythe, some tea, please. Will you say for lunch?”

Rasha cleared his throat suddenly, pushing himself forward past Tallie. “Uh, ma’am, I’m Rasha… I was the one in jail, that your lawyer got out. I just wanted to say thank you. Really, thank you. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me otherwise, or why you would help, but…I appreciate it. Very much.” He paused to swallow heavily. “I, uh, don’t know when I’ll ever be able to pay you back, but I won’t forget.”

“Now, wait just a moment, there,” Glory said with a warm smile. “Who said anything about paying?”

Rasha squared his shoulders and raised his chin. Even visibly haggard from lack of sleep, he found a spark of Punaji independence to fan alight. “I don’t like being in debt.”

“Now that is what I like to hear,” she said approvingly, smoothly tucking a hand behind Rasha’s arm and steering him toward an arrangement of sofas and chairs around a low table. With her other, she beckoned the rest of them to follow. “It’s a very Eserite mindset. You should also consider the nature of debts, though. If there were some form of agreement or contract in place, well, that would be another thing. In its absence, any good turn done for you is a favor, nothing more.” Smiling playfully, she tapped the tip of Rasha’s nose with a finger before nudging him into an overstuffed armchair. “Get used to abusing generosity, Rasha. Not so you can abuse it, exactly, but to prevent it being done to you. People will try to trap you into paying them debts you don’t owe them; leaving a fingerhold for that kind of ploy is very risky, for a thief.”

“I see,” he said slowly, frowning in thought.

“We all appreciate you helping out, Glory,” said Tallie. “So please don’t think I’m being ungrateful, because I’m not, at all. But I have to wonder why you would spend the money and effort on it.”

“That is also good,” Glory replied, nodding to her. “Question everything, and be especially wary of unearned generosity. To answer your question, there are multiple factors at play.” She settled down into a chair at the head of the little formation of furniture, languidly crossing her legs and draping her arms over the sides in a way that subtly emphasized her figure. “On a basic level, it’s expected that Guild members will look after apprentices up to a point. On a slightly less basic one, I’ve developed a friendship with our Jasmine, here, and thus I consider myself to have at least a slight interest in what befalls her friends.” She winked at Jasmine before continuing. “But what you want to know about is my ulterior motive. I do have friends in the Guild who keep me up-to-date on interesting events. That, of course, is how I learned of Rasha’s predicament—and how I’ve learned of other things that have befallen you recently. I’ll refrain from laying out all the sordid politics of the situation, but in brief: it seems that any favor I don’t do for you, Alan Vandro will. And I object, on principle, to him gaining footholds.”

Ross sighed heavily. “Man, these politics. I don’t even understand what these factions want.”

“Oh, I don’t have any objection to Webs’s political or religious philosophies,” Glory said sardonically. “Quite frankly, he has some excellent points. But the man, personally, is a sleazy, manipulative abuser. I don’t know why he is back in the city; he had allegedly retired to Onkawa some years ago to be Toss’s problem. Whyever he is here, so long as he’s in my city, he does not need to be gaining influence.”

“I don’t get that,” Ross said, still frowning. “He was nice to us. Even gave us those charms.”

“He wants something from us,” Tallie retorted. “This is not the first time we’ve heard to watch ourselves around that guy, either. I’d say that’s starting to sound like good advice.”

“Sure,” Ross agreed, “I’m not stupid. But we’ve got nothing but people’s word for anything. What’s he ever done that’s so terrible?”

“I’ve been pondering that too, since this morning,” Jasmine said slowly. “Bird Savaraad said he was a misogynist. Honestly, I’m probably more sensitive than most to that attitude in men, and I didn’t see it from him.”

“Apparently, his head henchman is even a woman,” Darius added.

“Vandro is nothing if not a professional,” Glory said, grimacing. “And not all misogynists are cut from the same cloth, Jasmine. A man can have the basic self-control to work with women, even speak respectfully to them, and still think of them as inherently lesser. It comes out in small ways, no matter how carefully he behaves—and sometimes, in not so small ones. I don’t know what sort of hold he has on Gimmick, but I would under no circumstances wish to be in her shoes.”

“Honestly,” Layla sniffed, giving Darius an accusing stare. “Have you deliberately sought out the worst possible people with whom to associate?”

“Yep,” he said dryly. “That’s exactly what I’ve done. Just to piss you off, Layla.”

“Kindly keep a civil tongue in your head,” she snapped. “Remember we are in good company and you represent our House!”

“I assure you,” Glory said with clear amusement, “my sensibilities are not so easily ruffled. Quite frankly, I’m finding you kids rather refreshing. It’s been…well, more years than I will admit since my own apprentice peccadilloes. Though I must say you’ve managed to attract more trouble and faster than almost any group of young people I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah,” Tallie sighed. “It’s a gift.”

“Webs, if anything, is the least of our worries,” said Jasmine. “We’ve apparently made an enemy of Ironeye…”

“Yes, so I’ve heard,” said Glory. “That may cost you, but so long as you stay out of Glass Alley, she is unlikely to trouble herself with you any further.”

“We’re a lot more concerned about dwarves right now,” Rasha muttered.

“Ah, yes,” Glory said seriously, then smiled at her Butler as he set down a tray on the table and began pouring tea. “Thank you, Smythe. It’s not only the Guild to which I pay attention; my primary activities do keep me in the know with regard to all manner of important issues concerning the Empire and the world as a whole. I am glad you all came to see me in person; there is something that I think you should know, and consider.” She accepted a cut of tea from Smythe, still gazing at them seriously. “When I contacted Bird and outlined the situation, she indicated that in her professional opinion, these dwarves pestering you are likely to be government-affiliated actors.”

“She said the same to us,” Darius said slowly.

“Well, surely that’s a good thing, is it not?” said Layla. “I mean, representatives from one of the Five Kingdoms will doubtless be more civilized in their behavior than any group of random layabouts.”

A tense silence fell.

“She’s kind of adorable,” Tallie said after a moment. “Annoying, sure. But in a cute puppy kind of way.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” Layla said haughtily.

“Government agents,” Glory said quietly, “are among the absolute worst people to have after you, Lady Layla. They are totally without scruple or restraint, and are backed by the greatest powers possible short of a major cult. If persons answering to one of the Five Kingdoms—and actually, it is only likely to be one of three—are pursuing you, then the only powers which will or can protect you if it comes to a contest of force are the Guild and the Empire. And therein lies the problem.”

“One of three?” Ross said. “I don’t get it.”

“Ah, well.” Glory’s face lightened and she leaned forward, speaking now in a tone animated by interest. “The Five Kingdoms really aren’t at all monolithic. Of them, three would certainly take an interest in those very curious weapons the Silver Legions confiscated from you, but two have not suffered all that badly from the Narisian Treaty and its aftermath, and would be more inclined to stay the course and not provoke the Empire. The more depressed states have little to lose and a desperate need to reposition themselves, but matters in Rodvenheim and Isilond are far more stable. Isilond produces crafted goods far more than raw minerals, and with the shake-up in the metals market they have, if anything, prospered. The few native Isil mining operations were bankrupted, but they are now able to buy their raw materials at quite a discount. And Rodvenheim has always been the most magically-inclined of the Kingdoms; their trade with the Empire has continued unabated, minerals not having been as much a part of their economy. Additionally, Rodvenheim is positioned very close to Puna Dara, and as per the Empire’s treaty with the Punaji, no Imperial tariffs can be imposed on trade crossing overland from Puna Dara to Rodvenheim and vice versa. They are the only dwarven state on the continent heavily involved in maritime trade, which has also bolstered their economy.”

“This is all quite fascinating,” Rasha said wearily, “but I think we’re wandering off the point…”

“All things are interconnected,” Glory replied, giving him a look of amusement. “The high and the low. The fact is, you kids are very immediately and personally affected by these issues of global economics, and had better start paying attention. Specifically, the Empire is in the middle of trade negotiations right now with representatives from Svenheim and Ostrund, both of whom are attempting to draw Stavulheim into the deal.”

“Trade negotiations?” Darius straightened slightly in his seat. “What do they have that we want?”

“Metal,” said Glory, “the same as they have always have. Part of it is an attempt to repair relations between the Kingdoms and the Empire. They are not militarily a match for Tiraas by any means, but there are innumerable reasons it is better for nations to be on good terms with those bordering them. Also, one effect of the Narisian Treaty is that the Imperial economy is heavily dependent upon Tar’naris. I’ve heard whispers that relations with the drow are cooling—faint enough that I don’t place any stock in them, but it may be beside the point. It is simply wiser policy to diversify one’s options. The Silver Throne is looking to begin importing sizable quantities of metal from the dwarves again, both to put directly into the economy and to stockpile against some future trouble. The Empire is very prosperous right now, which makes it a good time to invest and hoard non-perishable resources.”

“Oh,” said Darius, wide-eyed. “Oh, shit.”

“Darius, really,” Layla exclaimed.

“Uh…” Tallie glanced at Darius, then at Glory, and then at Jasmine, who also looked alarmed. “Okay, I’m still lost. What’s all this got to do with us?”

“If the Empire feels a need to placate the dwarves,” Jasmine said quietly, “and the dwarves after us are representatives of their governments… The Empire is not going to side with a handful of scruffy would-be thieves if all this escalates into an incident.”

“Exactly,” Glory said, nodding. “What’s worse, they may very well side against you, should anything which befalls become public enough to force an official response. In fact, things being as they are, I would advise you to prevent, if you can, matters from coming to that point. If the Empire begins to actively consider you a nuisance that needs to be silenced…”

“Whoah, now, hang on,” Tallie protested. “We’re Guild. Just apprentices, but still! The Guild exists to fight unjust power. If they tried something like that…”

“Then,” Glory said grimly, “Boss Tricks would remember, and see to it that the specific parties eventually suffered for it. Whether he would be able to protect you is another matter. The Guild has not thrived for thousands of years by charging blades out at every power which showed a hint of corruption, Tallie. And specifically, the last time the Guild openly assaulted Imperial interests was during the Enchanter Wars, when we acted in concert with an overt military action by the Sisters of Avei and a widespread propaganda campaign by the Veskers. And that was when the Empire itself was already reeling and more than half broken. Now? Tricks would have to be very careful indeed. The Empire would not risk moving in force against the Guild, there are too many other factors at play. A lot of those factors would be silenced, however, if the Guild seemingly struck first and Imperial Intelligence bloodied its nose in response. And trust me, if the instigating issue was an apparently unrelated squabble between dwarves and you, it would seem that the Guild struck first.”

“What you’re saying,” Rasha said in a tone of soul-deep exhaustion, “is that we’re on our own with this.”

“That is probably taking things a little too far.” The look Glory gave him was nearly as concerned as Tallie’s. “This is a situation, not a doom. There are still avenues to exploit. I just want you to understand all the facts before you act. It’s your best chance to avoid a blunder you can’t afford.”

“Well, we’re doing what we can,” said Jasmine. “As I mentioned, we know the name of one of those dwarves now. It’s probably a fake name, but our witch friend Schwartz may still be able to track it back to something.”

“Yeah,” said Tallie, grinning aggressively. “And ol’ Rogrind did not like hearing that.”

Glory abruptly straightened in her seat, setting aside her teacup. “You said this in front of this Rogrind?”

“Not deliberately,” Jasmine replied. “He came up behind us during it, though.”

“And this Schwartz. Did you mention him by name?”

Jasmine paled. “I…yes, I did.”

“Ohhhh, crap,” Tallie whispered.

“I think,” Glory agreed grimly, “you had better find your friend Schwartz. Quickly.”

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