Tag Archives: Jenell Covrin

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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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11 – 16

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“Will you relax?” Tallie said with open amusement. “You look like you’re walking to your execution.”

“Sorry,” Rasha said automatically, not relaxing. It wasn’t as if he could just do so on command.

“Hey, man, your personal welfare aside, there’s a strategic issue at play, here,” Darius remarked. “You go walking up to a potential mark looking like you’re terrified of getting arrested, and what do you think is gonna happen?”

“Well, I’m sorry!” he snapped. “I’ll get used to it; this is my first time out, after all. It’s not like I’ve ever stolen anything before!”

“Stolen?” The two elves were walking at the head of the group; Fauna turned to raise an eyebrow at them. “You’re not about to steal anything, either.”

“Uh, what?” Tallie asked. “I thought were were gonna be out practicing.”

“Practicing, yes, but not stealing,” said Flora. “Picking a pocket is the smallest kind of job, but it’s still a job.”

“And nobody here is a fully ranked member of the Thieves’ Guild,” added Fauna.

“Which means us pulling an actual job is asking for an ass-kicking.”

“You don’t do jobs without the supervision of an actual Guild member. I’m positive you guys have been told that.”

“Well, yeah,” said Darius, “but I thought that’s the reason we were out with you, who are actually just apprentices like us so now I get it and I feel pretty dumb. It’s a warm, comfortable feeling.”

“Good,” said Tallie kindly. “The first step in solving your problems is admitting that you’re dumb.”

“I only said it so you couldn’t,” he retorted with a grin. “Seriously, though, what are we doing out here if we’re not gonna be actually stealing anything? Practicing what, I guess is the question.”

“There’s a lot that goes into rifling pockets beyond the actual doing,” Flora replied. “You’ve got teachers, fellow apprentices, and pocket dummies back at the Guild to practice that; we’re going to be experiencing the factors that involve being out in the environment.”

“Putting them together,” Fauna added, “will, as we said, be done under the proper supervision.”

“To begin with,” said Flora, “target acquisition. Here we are.”

They came to a stop and moved adroitly to the side around a corner, where both elves leaned casually against the nearby wall. It was a smooth and well-practiced maneuver, and would probably have been quite unobtrusive had they not been elves, not to mention one being garbed in ostentatious black leather and the other in a dramatic cloak. Still, the other three apprentices clustered together on the sidewalk corner, doubtless looking even more consciously out of place.

The street they had been following was a minor one, but a straight avenue which formed one of the “spokes” radiating out from the center of the city toward the walls (though that particular street didn’t happen to connect with either). Only a few of the buildings they had passed had doors or storefronts facing it; for the most part, it was used as a route between other streets. Its traffic thus moved more swiftly than that on the street onto which they now stepped, but it was altogether less crowded. This street curved away toward the northwest, vanishing out of sight a few dozen yards ahead, and was thronged by pedestrians, the only vehicles in sight being enchanted carriages parked and serving as stalls or food trucks. In fact, even the storefronts here were partly obscured in many cases by vendor stands. This was a shopping district—and, to judge by the general shabbiness of both the stores and shoppers, a far from upscale one.

“First step in finding a target,” Fauna murmured just loudly enough for them to hear, “is to go where they are. Places like this are good starting points when you’re new.”

“Your more upscale shopping districts have richer marks and better hunting,” said Flora, “but that’s a higher-stakes game. Those folks have a general attitude that they shouldn’t have to suffer inconveniences such as thieves, and the police tend to support that view.”

“On the other hand,” Fauna continued, “poorer districts have the opposite problem. Easy pickings, but often not even worth the picking.”

“Do they always do this?” Rasha muttered. “It’s like watching a vaudeville show.”

“Nah,” Tallie said easily. “Vaudeville’s more fast-paced, and both of ’em would’ve fallen down by this point. Tandem-talk is just a schtick. Positively Vesker, even Vidian.”

The elves chose to ignore the byplay. “Once you’ve settled on your hunting grounds,” said Flora, “then you start looking for targets. Take your time, stroll around, browse. It is not a race.”

“Haste makes you clumsy.”

“Clumsy gets your ass nabbed.”

“Slow and easy, breathe deeply, make yourself relax.”

“If you’re too stressed, you’re going to make the kinds of mistakes you can’t afford.”

Tallie and Darius turned and looked pointedly at Rasha, who sighed.

“Look around,” Fauna urged. “Who jumps out at you first?”

There was a pause, in which the three apprentices edged closer to the wall, beside the senior two, getting out of the way of foot traffic while they studied their surroundings. The group drew pointed looks from passersby, and all but the most distracted made a deliberate effort to keep out of arm’s reach of them. A couple even crossed the street after eyeballing them once. Whether anyone suspected them of being thieves was an open question, but at the very least, they were a gang of somewhat scruffy-looking youths, led by two oddly-dressed elves. Any city-dweller would instinctively avoid them.

The very avoidance gave them a good vantage from which to study people, though.

“There—” Rasha started to point as he spoke, but broke off when Flora slapped his hand down.

“Don’t do that, dumbass,” she said in an affectionately amused tone that took some of the sting out of the words. “When you’re stalking or just looking for a mark, don’t ever, ever let on that you’re paying them any attention.”

“Uh, right,” he said sheepishly, rubbing his wrist. “That’s…basic common sense, sorry.”

“You’re new,” Fauna said kindly. “Sometime we’ll have to tell you some of the dumbshit moves we pulled in our first week of training.”

“Let’s not,” Flora demurred, grimacing. “Who were you looking at, Rasha?”

“Well—look, he’s almost out of sight now. The guy in the nice coat, holding the package, see? Looks like he already has money, and he’s been shopping. Might have better stuff in his pockets than just coin.”

“Hey, well spotted,” Fauna said approvingly.

“I saw him too,” Darius said with ostentatious hauteur. “I just wanted to give you the chance to speak up.”

“Shut up, Darius,” Flora ordered without heat. “However, Rasha, don’t try to steal from that guy. That’s Lacquer, one of the best at this particular business. Some Guild thieves will generously take the time to break your fingers if you try robbing ’em. That one will simply report you to Style.”

All five of them winced in unison.

“Wait, so he’s Guild?” Tallie said in tones of fascination. “Huh. He looks so posh!”

“Voices low,” Fauna reminded her. “This is somebody’s cover we’re talking about; that’s the next best thing to sacred. Professional courtesy, at the very least.”

“And yes,” Flora added, “I trust you can imagine why looking a little fancier than the general run of the crowd would be useful in this game?”

“Nobody’s gonna be watching for him to be after their purse,” Rasha mused, nodding.

“It’d make you a mark for other pickpockets,” Darius added, “but then again, if any who may be operating know you…”

“The package is a nice touch,” Tallie said, grinning. “Wonder what he bought.”

“Guys like that serve a purpose beyond making their own rent money,” said Fauna. “Non-Guild thieves do exist, and places like this are where they’re most likely to start out. A big part of why the Guild is tolerated by polite society is that we keep a firm lid on that shit. Lacquer does cut purse strings, yes, but he’s also a kind of patrolling enforcer.”

“And so the marks come to him,” Darius noted with a grin. “Damn, that’s a good racket.”

“Man knows his business,” Flora agreed. “Anyhow, Rasha shows good instincts. You’ll get to know faces and tags with time, kids; don’t stress about that too much at this juncture. For now, signs of wealth are a good first indication.”

“There are others,” said Fauna. “You’ll be doing a fair amount of people-watching on excursions like this, and you’ll develop instincts concerning who can and should be targeted. People’s body language can tell you a lot.”

“Such as?” Rasha asked.

“How alert they may be,” Flora replied. “Whether they’re likely to fight, or call for help.”

“But ‘go for the rich ones’ sounds like a generally good plan to me,” Darius said blithely. “They’re the assholes who deserve it, aside from having the money.”

Flora and Fauna exchanged a long look.

“What?” Darius asked, peering back and forth between them.

“Yeah, what?” Tallie added a little belligerently. “Is he wrong?”

“Yes,” Fauna replied firmly. “The short answer is ‘yes.’”

“The longer answer,” added Flora, “is that you’re skating close to some thin ice with that kind of talk.”

“The Guild’s philosophies do predispose us to target people with wealth and power, because those are often the ones who need to be taken down.”

“But ‘often’ isn’t ‘necessarily.’ Start to think the rich invariably deserve a takedown because they’re rich, and you’re in the realm of class warfare. That gets…messy.”

“Have you two had a lot of interactions with rich people?” Tallie demanded, folding her arms. “Because growing up as I did, those were always the ones who picked on little guys like us. And got away with it.”

“In point of fact, we have,” said Fauna. “Working under Sweet, we get to meet all kinds of people.”

“That’s our bias, by the way,” Flora added. “Apprenticing under a sponsor inevitably means you get heavily trained in their methods, and pick up at least some of their worldview. Sweet’s view on the rich is that they’re exactly as likely to be abusive toward others as anyone else, but having resources just means a greater chance of pulling it off without repercussions.”

“Wealth,” Fauna said firmly, “is not evil. Correlation is not causation.”

“The best advice we can share is that you should never get caught up in what other people deserve. There’s really no way you can know; that’s a very big question.”

“Jobs are jobs, and the Guild isn’t in the business of crusading. When we go after someone to administer much-needed humility, it’s for a specific reason, owing to something they’ve done.”

“Not something they are, or have.”

“Hnh,” Tallie grunted, looking dissatisfied.

“Well, how’s about you go first,” Fauna suggested with a sly little grin. She shifted, scanning the slowly passing crowd. It was nearing the lunch hour, and business in the market street was increasingly brisk, to the point that even their little bubble of privacy was diminishing as the press of people meant no one had time to give them especial attention. “All right, don’t stare. Across the street, about six yards north. Guy in a suit and a coat more appropriate for a typical Tiraan winter than what’s actually happening.”

“I see him,” Tallie said, leaning back against the building and stuffing her hands in her pockets. Her eyes cut sideways to fix on the target Fauna designated, though she kept her head shifted slightly the other way.

“All right, first trial,” Flora said in a lightly conversational tone. “You’re to go up—boys, stop gawking at the mark!—go up and touch his coat, just above the pocket.”

“Just touch,” added Fauna, “without drawing his attention. Don’t put your fingers in, and above all do not take anything.”

“Really, that’s it?” Tallie said condescendingly. “You call that a trial?”

“Crawl before you run, kid,” Flora retorted in the same tone. “Go on, get moving. He’s getting away.”

The designated mark, indeed, had finished acquiring a portable meat pastry from the stall and was heading off up the street. Tallie paused only to wink at her group before setting off at a long-legged lope. A few yards up, she crossed the avenue to the other side, and began closing in on her target from behind.

The two elves straightened up and started moving, leaving the boys to trail along in their wake; they kept to an idle, dawdling pace, seemingly peering at stalls and window displays as they passed, and only glancing at Tallie’s progress occasionally and surreptitiously. Rasha and Darius, after exchanging a look, tried to follow their example. To judge by some of the looks shopkeepers gave them, they weren’t entirely successful.

Tallie had begun rooting around in her pockets as she approached her mark, muttering to herself and scowling. Making a show of clear distraction, she brushed against the man in passing by. He halted in bringing the pastry to his mouth to give her an annoyed look; she offered a quick apology and a little smile before pushing on ahead.

A few more yards up the street, sighing loudly in frustration, she stopped in the mouth of an alley and took off her jacket, growling and carefully going through its pockets. The mark gave her a disdainful look as he passed.

Just after he did, Tallie “found” what she’d been looking for—a comb—and paused to straighten out her hair, which didn’t particularly need it. Then she continued on her way at a much more languorous pace.

Another half-block along, she stopped in the mouth of another alley, where the rest crossed the street to meet her.

“Not bad!” Fauna said, clapping her on the back. “Good routine! Most people on their first try don’t think to have a cover; getting close to someone is much easier if you provide a reason they won’t question.”

“I note nobody mentioned that before sending her off,” Darius commented.

“Well, the point is to see what you kids know,” Flora replied with a unrepentant grin. “What’s the use in just telling you beforehand?”

“Yeah, well,” Tallie said with clearly false modesty, “I can’t say I’ve ever tried stealing before, but I know a thing or two about looking more harmless than I am.”

“Ahh,” Darius said sagely. “So only half the things I’ve heard about circus folk are true.”

“Darius, one of these days I’m gonna stab you right in the nuts.”

“You know, honeybunch, you don’t have to keep making up these violent pretexts. If you wanna get your hands on my nuts, all you’ve gotta do is ask nicely.”

“Shh,” Fauna said curtly. “Trouble.” She and Flora had both gone suddenly, rigidly alert.

Before the junior apprentices could get a good start at looking around, the man in the expensive coat came stomping right up to them, pastry dangling forgotten from his hand.

“All right, what did you take?!” he demanded, glaring at Tallie.

Her eyebrows shot upward. “Excuse you?”

“I know what you did!” he snapped. “You’d better hand it over before I go for the guards!”

“Whoah, now, wait a second,” Darius said nervously. “There’s no need for—”

“No, no, this is fine,” Tallie said, folding her arms and glaring at her erstwhile mark. “I don’t know what crawled up your butt today, but check your pockets. Go on, check thoroughly. If you come up with anything missing, I’ll let you search mine. Otherwise, I’m gonna want an apology.”

“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You kids are thieves!”

“You accuse everybody you meet of being thieves?” Rasha demanded. He glanced quickly at the two elves; oddly, only the three human apprentices seemed to be trying to deflect their accuser. Flora and Fauna were standing like statues against the wall.

“Is there a problem here, ladies and gentlemen?”

All of them turned to face the new arrival, a man wearing an Imperial Army uniform and a no-nonsense expession.

“Yes!” barked the man with the pastry. “This little wench stole my—um—”

“As I was about to say, officer,” Tallie drawled, “this character just walked up and started throwing around wild accusations. I’ve yet to hear exactly what it is he thinks I stole.”

“I see,” said the guard, turning to study the man in question. “Sir, are you missing any possessions?”

“I—she brushed up against me! She did it quite deliberately!”

“That’s as may be, sir, but it’s not what I asked you,” the guard replied. “If something of yours has been stolen, we can address that. If you’re just going to complain about people brushing against you close to noon in a crowded shopping district, I’ll have to ask you to stop creating a scene.”

That brought the complainer up short. There was an extended silence while they all watched him shuffle awkwardly through his own pockets, keeping the grease-stained fingers of his left hand well out of it. After checking and finding his coin purse and a few other personal items, he finally stopped, looking sheepish.

“I…well, I guess I was mistaken.”

“Uh huh,” Tallie said pointedly. “Now, about that apology?”

The guard cleared his throat. “If there’s nothing else, sir, please move along.”

“Hey,” Tallie protested, while the well-dressed man hurried away up the street with his head down. “I wasn’t done with that guy!”

“Yes, you were,” the guard retorted firmly. “Are you kids apprentices with the Thieves’ Guild?”

They all froze, looking to the two elves for guidance. Flora and Fauna were both watching a point across the street.

“What if we are?”

“You can’t prove that!”

“There’s no law against—”

All three of them tried to answer at once, then broke off, wincing.

“I see,” the guard said dryly.

“Don’t avoid that question,” Flora ordered. “Being in the Guild is not illegal, and denying it is just suspicious.”

“Sorry,” Fauna added to the guard. “They’re new.”

“Uh huh,” he said, plainly unamused. “Regardless, I think you should move along, now. You’ve had enough fun here for one day.”

“Hey,” Rasha snapped, balling his fists. “We weren’t doing—”

“Shut it!” Flora barked. “We’ll continue this conversation later.”

“As soon as the guards are involved, playtime is over,” Fauna said just as firmly. “Don’t argue with them, and there is zero valid reason for you to be making fists in a policeman’s presence. Simmer down.”

“Come on,” Flora ordered, straightening up and beckoning them curtly. “Do as the nice man says.”

The patrolman continued to watch them closely as the elves led them away up the street; this time, they were also followed by the gazes of nearly everyone in earshot. Fair or no, it appeared their practice had indeed been cut short, and not because the guard had told them so.

“Okay, what the hell just happened?” Tallie hissed. “I know that guy didn’t feel me touch his coat—he’d have said something at the time if he did!”

“You’re right,” Fauna said curtly. “You did fine. But we heard someone tell him that we were Guild—same voice that fetched the guard while that guy was approaching us.”

“And systematically informed every shopkeeper in a ring around us while we were dealing with that,” said Flora. “And there he is.”

This time, she made no bones about blatantly pointing.

Directly across the street from them stood a dwarf with a neatly-trimmed reddish beard, wearing a dapper suit. Seeing the elf pointing, he turned to face them directly, offered a knowing smile and politely tipped his hat to them. Then he turned and strolled away up a nearby alley.

“Follow him!” Fauna barked.

Instantly, both elves took off at a run, which carried them out of the way nearly before an outcry could develop at the sight—and aside from the inherent spectacle of elves moving at high speed, Flora’s billowing cloak tended to catch attention. They were swiftly gone, however, each vanishing into another small alley up and down the street, respectively.

“Oh, hell yes,” Tallie growled, stalking off after the dwarf as directed. Darius and Rasha followed, equally grim-faced.

Their quarry was not far away. Despite having a head start on them, he had been stopped just a few yards up the alley. Flora and Fauna had already converged there, but were hanging back; it was not they who had intercepted the dwarf and held his attention.

“Excuse me,” he said politely, his Svennish accent faint but distinct. “You appear to be blocking the path.”

“Yes,” the Silver Legionnaire standing in front of him said curtly. “And you appear to be meddling in things that don’t concern you.”

Flora and Fauna, standing behind the Legionnaire, exchanged a look, their expressions openly confused.

“Young lady, I haven’t the slightest idea what—”

He broke off as she raised her lance, aiming the tip directly at his face.

“We could play that game, but you’d win,” the young woman snapped, “so I’m not going to. You are making life difficult for these apprentices in an effort to put pressure on them to comply with your demands. You then led them into this alley and allowed them to intercept you so you could make your demands in privacy.”

“That’s quite a tale,” he said calmly. “I don’t suppose you have anything resembling evidence to back that up?”

“Shut up,” she retorted. “We’re not doing this. You are going to back down, and think carefully about how I intercepted both them and you on such short notice. You must be pretty confident to risk the ire of the Thieves’ Guild, but no matter who you work for, you don’t want to have both the Guild and the Sisterhood after you. The last political entity to get caught between them was the Tiraan Empire, in a little tiff called the Enchanter Wars. I assume you know how that ended?”

“Are you threatening me?” The dwarf sounded merely curious.

“I wasn’t,” she replied, stepping forward and forcing him to retreat, or get poked in the nose with her weapon. “Now I am. Clear your ass out of here while it’s only got one hole in it.”

“I hardly think this conduct is befitting a Silver Legionnaire,” the dwarf said, moving no further. “I wonder what your superiors would say?”

At that, the soldier grinned, broadly and very unpleasantly. “Well, don’t wonder. Go learn for yourself. I’m Private Covrin, personal aide to Bishop Syrinx. Right now I’m going to let you leave here and drop this little gambit, but if you push me, I’ll go right to the Bishop with this. And by this time tomorrow, you’ll have the full strength of the Guild, the Sisterhood, and Imperial Intelligence pursuing every aspect of your business. Possibly the Veskers, Salyrites, and whoever else owes her Grace a favor, just for shits and giggles. Is that what you want? All those people…examining you?”

They locked eyes, both ignoring the thieves standing around looking on.

Then, oddly, the dwarf cracked a smile. He took another step back, then bowed slightly to her, doffing his hat. “Well. What an intriguing day this has turned out to be. I’ll bid you all good afternoon, then.” He turned and made his way back toward the alley entrance, having to stop after only three steps. “Excuse me, please.”

Tallie, standing at the head of the trio, folded her arms and stared down her nose at him.

“Let him through,” Flora said quietly.

Tallie sneered, but edged aside. Darius snorted and leaned against the alley wall, out of the way; Rasha just curled his lip and refused to budge, forcing the dwarf to edge around him.

Silence reigned until he was out of the alley and around the corner.

“Well, this just gets more and more interesting,” Fauna said pointedly, staring at Covrin. “Not that we don’t appreciate the help, but…”

“But you’ll be wanting to know what the hell is going on here,” the soldier replied distractedly, her attention on the other three. “This group is missing some people.”

“So, uh.” Tallie cocked her head to one side. “You’re with Locke’s squad, then?”

“No,” Covrin said heatedly, then moderated her tone. “No. Let’s put aside the question of me for a moment. In your position, I’d be wondering just how that dwarf managed to be on you so quickly. You haven’t been away from the Casino that long; the Guild is heavily warded against arcane scrying, and it patrols its environs too well for anyone to safely set up watchers at its entrances. So how’d he find you?”

“How did you?” Rasha demanded.

“The same way, I expect,” Covrin replied with a cold little smile. “In Glass Alley there’s a magic shop called the Finder’s Fee. The answers you need most immediately are there; look for a Guild member with the tag Sparkler who works there. I suggest you gather the rest of your group, first, and maybe don’t wander off by yourselves any further. I don’t know who those dwarves are, exactly, but they’re a capable group. You don’t need them picking you off one by one.”

“Why the hell do you kids have dwarves after you?!” Flora exclaimed.

“It’s, uh…” Tallie winced, glancing aside at the boys. “Complicated.”

“Well, no shit,” Fauna said acidly.

“Right now,” said Rasha, “I’m most curious about how you come into this, Private Covrin.”

“Any organization the size of the Sisterhood of Avei,” she replied, “has factions, agendas, schisms… People mistreating power and undercutting each other. All systems are corrupt, or so I hear.” She gave that a moment to sink in before continuing. “Whatever other problems you guys have, you’ve had the bad luck to be caught up in an internal Sisterhood power struggle. Locke is a shifty one who never does anything with only one agenda. And Bishop Syrinx is dangerous in a way that even your trainers probably don’t want to cross. I’ve got a feeling you two may know a little bit about that already,” she added, turning toward Flora and Fauna.

The elves folded their arms and narrowed their eyes at her in perfect unison.

“Still waiting to hear your part in this,” Tallie prompted.

Covrin turned back to face them, her eyes intent and suddenly almost fervent. “I can help you know what’s going on, who’s attempting what, and why. Right now you’re acting blind. If you know who the players are, though, you can play them. Or at least, keep them from playing you. Which you’d better believe they are doing right now.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Darius asked with uncharacteristic seriousness.

“Later,” Covrin said curtly. “Get your friends, go to Glass Alley, find out how you’re being tracked. That’s my offer of good faith. When you know I’m good for it… Maybe I’ll have a favor to ask in return. But don’t take too long about this. None of you are any use to me if you get knifed in alley or carried off by dwarves.”

She turned, paused at the sight of the two elves, then shoved roughly between them. Neither made any attempt to inhibit her, just turning to watch her go with eyes still narrowed suspiciously.

Covrin did not turn to look back as she vanished into the dimness beyond, but her voice carried nonetheless.

“Watch your backs.”

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11 – 14

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“Ah, Basra. Close the door, please.”

Basra paused just inside the office to pull the door shut as ordered, then glanced with a carefully neutral expression at Principia, who was standing at attention near the High Commander’s desk, before proceeding the rest of the way forward.

“Good morning, Commander. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting?”

“Not at all, Locke only just got arrived herself,” Rouvad said briskly. “Apologies for depriving you of breakfast, Sergeant, but the Bishop has business at the Church which won’t wait on us. This won’t be a long meeting.”

“My schedule is currently elastic, ma’am,” Principia replied crisply. “Obviously her Grace’s time is more valuable.”

“Indeed. Then let’s be about this before anyone is made late for anything.” Rouvad folded her hands atop the desk, shifting her body slightly to face Basra directly. “I called you both here for a progress report on your shared project. Basra, what do you have?”

“Very little, at this juncture,” Basra replied with the faintest frown. “My task is political in nature and rather sensitive; unraveling these webs takes time.”

“Naturally,” Rouvad acknowledged with a nod. “Neither of you are here to be pressured, I simply wish to remain in the loop with all details. What have you managed so far?”

“I have, of course, approached Bishop Darling to ask about those devices.” Basra twisted her mouth in a slight grimace. “He was…well, in a word, himself.”

Both the other women present nodded in immediate understanding.

“Based on our conversation,” Basra continued, “I am reasonably sure he is the one who arranged for the presence of both those staves and the tip that brought the Legion’s intervention. At least, he hinted in that direction. I should stipulate, here, that I am making assumptions. Darling is capable of being extremely underhanded indeed. My conclusions are based on our relationship; we work well together and have built up a degree of trust, which I don’t believe he would squander without cause. Based upon broad hints he has dropped, I think that Darling, personally, considers it a matter of the greater good to have those devices known to the Sisterhood, and that there are factional issues within the Thieves’ Guild at work which restrain him from working more openly with us.”

“Hm.” Rouvad narrowed her eyes slightly in thought. “How do you plan to proceed?”

“As I have, in part. He seems inclined to dole out further tidbits, but I’m unwilling to be strung along with no other recourse. As yet I’ve no other ideas or avenues to pursue, and am considering carefully what else to try. It is, as I said, a very early stage in this investigation.”

“Of course,” Rouvad agreed. “That’s satisfactory progress for two days’ work, considering. Locke, can you shed any insight on a factional conflict within the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am. Factions within the Guild are transient things stirred up by the issues of the day, and I’ve been out of the loop far too long to know who’s who and what they’re after.”

“Mm. How quickly do you think you could find out?”

Principia blinked once, her own expression of surprise in an otherwise blank face. “…Commander, you’re talking about building a new reputation and a whole set of connections; thieves don’t just chitchat about sensitive business with people they’ve just met. To answer the question, years. But I wish it noted for the record that I consider the idea an abrogation of the understanding that I am not to be leveraged against the Guild, and would not comply if ordered.”

“Mm hm,” Basra murmured.

“Syrinx,” Rouvad said flatly, “she is not the only one whom I expect to remain civil, here. And she’s correct: that is, indeed, Legion policy and Sisterhood doctrine with regard to individuals who have affiliation with multiple cults. My apologies, Sergeant, it was a spur of the moment thought, not an order.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“In any case,” Rouvad continued, “if the Bishop has nothing else to add…? Very well. It is, as we’ve noted, quite early in this affair, Locke, but have you made any progress, either with the staves or tracing their origins?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “The weapons are called divine disruptors. They were created by a secret division of the Imperial Army at a secure spell lab in Veilgrad, which was damaged in the chaos event of a few months ago. Weapon prototypes were stolen by members of the chaos cult which caused the disaster, and then stolen from them by the Black Wreath, who were then ambushed and beaten by Duchess Malivette Dufresne, a vampire of one of the more dangerous lineages and the sitting Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province. Dufresne returned most of the staves to the Empire, after suggesting her intention to deliver one or more to the Theives’ Guild for the express purpose of disseminating the spellwork in question and depriving the Imperial government of exclusive control of it. What occurred after that I have not ascertained, though it suggests in general terms how Bishop Darling came to be involved.

“In function, the weapons produce a burst of energy which neutralizes all forms of divine magic. Sister Eivery and I have not yet had time to test them under a variety of conditions, but we have ascertained that they immediately collapse a divine shield of normal strength, and when used on a Light-wielder, inhibit the subject’s ability to call upon divine magic. That effect fades after an hour, roughly. I have disassembled one of the staves, and believe I could build another from scratch, but liargold aside, these specimens are made almost entirely from cheap knock-off materials, largely because the genuine materials they suggest are prohibitively expensive. To proceed, ma’am, I will need either a substantial quantity of gold and rare crystals, or the assistance of an alchemist able to work with liargold.”

She stopped talking, and there was dead silence in the room. Rouvad and Syrinx both stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Locke,” the Commander said after a long moment, “how did you dig all that up so quickly?”

“I ascribe it to either immense good luck or Avei’s intervention, ma’am,” Principia replied. “One of the Guild apprentices we have been following happened to have been present at Veilgrad when these weapons first appeared.”

“Oh, Locke,” Basra murmured. “I do hope that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. Since we are well aware that Trissiny Avelea was present and involved in that mess…”

“Yes, your Grace,” Principia said calmly. “General Avelea has been most helpful. Her involvement is the only reason I am inclined to credit divine intervention; a paladin’s presence where coincidences start to appear is suggestive.”

“And just what were you doing talking to Trissiny Avelea?” Basra snapped.

“She summoned me,” Principia replied, shifting her eyes to Rouvad. “Given our respective ranks, I judged I had better respond immediately. For future reference, however, would you prefer I report any contact with the General, Commander? I wish to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Rouvad shook her head. “The condition of your enlistment was that you stay away from Avelea unless she reached out to you first. If she did, whatever you discuss is between you. However, I should clarify that you are not to pursue her attentions if she’s not inclined to talk further. Understood?”

“I wouldn’t, anyway, Commander. That’s no way to build a relationship with someone.”

“Locke, I don’t need to hear your opinions on interpersonal relations when I give you an order. You know what I need to hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Exactly,” Rouvad said, staring pointedly at her. “Now, with regard to the matter at hand, did she summon you to talk specifically about these weapons?”

“No, ma’am, I asked about that. She wanted my advice on integrating Avenist and Eserite philosophies and succeeding in the Guild.”

“Hm,” the Commander mused. “Very well. I would castigate you for apparently firing one of those weapons at Eivery, but frankly, knowing her as I do, I’ll assume your presence was the only reason she didn’t test it on herself without supervision.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am.”

“Overall, impressive progress, Locke. How do you plan to proceed?”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ve indicated my intentions with regard to the continuing reverse-enchantment of the weapons. While I personally am keeping a circumspect distance from both Trissiny and the Guild, Shahai has made contact with the group of apprentices we arrested and established the beginnings of a relationship, which we intend to leverage for further information as possible and appropriate. With regard to that, she reported the group were also approached by a group of dwarves with the same intent. Not to be racist, but dwarves were also apparently the intended buyers of the staves at the swap meet the Legion interrupted.”

“How can it possibly be racist to notice that both groups were dwarves?” Basra said disdainfully.

Principia’s armor rasped softly as she shrugged. “I didn’t want to imply that they all look alike. Both wore obscuring robes, which isn’t dwarven or anybody’s custom who isn’t trying to hide their identity.”

“Interesting,” said Rouvad. “Keep me appraised of any developments.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else to report?”

“Yes, ma’am. Among those arrested, but not involved with the Guild, was another individual whose presence was extremely fortuitous. He is a Salyrite, a fae magic specialist who provides helpfully indirect access to that cult’s resources; I am cultivating a relationship in part with an eye to developing that connection, since the Sisterhood has few personnel like Eivery trained for the kind of work I am doing. He also happens to be the son of an old friend of mine, who I was not aware had offspring. Name is Herschel Schwartz.”

Basra shifted her head very faintly, raising on eyebrow by a hair.

“Very well, you don’t really need my blessing to proceed with that,” said Rouvad. “Needless to say, you will be very careful with any plan which involves the College of Salyrene in this, but I understand the potential need.”

“Yes, ma’am. I do not intend to involve the College at all, but only available elements within it, to the extent that it can be done discreetly. But I raised the matter for another reason. Mr. Schwartz was present for Bishop Syrinx’s recent successes in Viridill and apparently part of her staff. He is now pursuing some kind of vendetta against her.”

Rouvad sighed and leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. “Basra!”

“That’s a surprise to me,” Basra said in perfect calm. “Schwartz was imminently helpful to me for his magical expertise in dealing with elementals and other fae nonsense. I sent a glowing testimonial of his performance to his cult. I thought we parted on good terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said irritably, straightening back up. “why is this man now obsessed with the Bishop?”

“I would say ‘offended’ more than ‘obsessed,’ ma’am. And I didn’t ask.”

The Commander’s gaze sharpened. “You didn’t ask why this son of your acquaintance was chasing a vendetta against our Bishop?”

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”

“Denied. I have expressed myself clearly on the subject of infighting, Locke. You will keep a civil tongue in your head when employing it to, about, or near Bishop Syrinx. Answer the question.”

“Yes, ma’am. I consider his motivations secondary at best and probably not very interesting; what matters is that he cannot be allowed to do this. Quite apart from the need to shield our Bishop from outside interference, as someone with a personal interest in the boy’s continued health I would rather not see him pick a fight he is going to decisively lose.”

Rouvad’s stare shifted back to Basra. “And you have no idea why he would be irate with you?”

“I didn’t say I had no idea,” the Bishop replied with a shrug. “Schwartz was extremely useful, but he’s an academic and frankly a bit of a houseplant. Hand-holding him through various outdoor excursions was…trying. He also had developed an infatuation with my aide, Private Covrin. Since she was being exceedingly discreet with members of other cults at my request, due to the sensitivity of our work, she refrained from rebuking him as firmly as she otherwise might. Considering I was the reason for Covrin’s restraint, I took it upon myself to instruct him to leave her alone. And that not until I found him lurking outside her quarters at the Abbey; better he hear it from me than a Silver Legion patrol. They don’t do restraint when it comes to creepy guys harassing their own.” She shook her head. “I thought I was fair with the boy, and he didn’t seem excessively upset at the time. Though that may have just been embarrassment.”

“Is this Schwartz character a threat, do you think, Locke?”

“I hardly think so, ma’am,” Principia replied. “He has no stomach for violence, no inclination toward law-breaking, and no plan. He was hanging around an illegal swap meet in the hopes of striking up an acquaintance with Eserites who could teach him how to go about seeking revenge. That’s the kind of competence we’re talking about, here.”

“I concur with every part of the Sergeant’s assessment,” Basra said dryly. “Not a thing in this world frightens me less than the outrage of Herschel Schwartz.”

“I am cultivating Schwartz as a useful contact, as I said,” Principia continued. “I also mean to talk him down from this at the same time. This business with Covrin is news to me, though he mentioned her. This altogether strikes me as common enough behavior in a young man who lacked good female role models growing up. Some time spent around my squad will do him a world of good, I think.”

“All right, on the strength of both your recommendations,” Rouvad said darkly, “I’ll let that alone for now. But if for any reason your assessment changes in any way, Locke, you will immediately report it, both to me and to Bishop Syrinx.”

“Yes, ma’am. I have already told Herschel that if he goes near Bishop Syrinx with aggressive intent I’ll be taking the matter directly to his own cult.”

“Good; do that, too. What you do in your personal time, and with whom, is your own affair, but none of this is to come between you and your duties.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else, then?” She paused, glancing back and forth between them. “Very well. All things considered, ladies, good work; keep it up. Dismissed.”


Basra kept herself restrained all through the ride to the Cathedral and the walk through its halls to her office. The whole time, Jenell tried to be as invisible as possible; she could clearly see the storm coming. Being out of its path was probably not an option. She’d have to settle for not making herself its focus.

Her reprieve extended once they arrived; Basra immediately sent her to cancel her first appointment of the day. While Jenell ordinarily hated having to give bad news to the likes of Bishop Rastlin, especially when she couldn’t provide a satisfactory reason for it, today she relished the opportunity to be out from under Basra’s glowering eye for a little while. Even Rastlin’s displeasure was a relief. There wasn’t much he could actually do to her.

She desperately wanted to drag her feet and prolong the errand, but didn’t dare. Making Basra wait at the best of times was a quick way to the bad side of her temper; adding any kind of delay to her existing ire would be a disaster.

Basra’s office, very fortunately, was soundproof; the enchantment was standard on all the offices of Bishops and Church officials of any high rank. Covrin had standing permission to enter without knocking, which she did—then quickly slipped inside and shut the door before anybody happened to hear what sounded like a fight in progress.

The Bishop’s idea of décor was almost a caricature of Avenist standards. At her home, she liked her comforts lavish, but her space in the Cathedral was stark, spartan, and decorated exclusively with military hardware. The walls were hung with bladed and blunt weapons, shields bearing various devices, and locked display cases holding old-fashioned battlestaves. Jenell had worked with Basra long enough and accumulated enough trust to know which cases weren’t actually locked, and which staves still held a charge. In each of the room’s corners stood a suit of armor—a medieval cavalry knight’s, and three different Silver Legion sets from different eras—and by the fireplace was a training dummy on a slightly flexible pole.

This was the office’s second dummy since Basra had returned from Viridill. They did not enjoy long lives.

Despite her usual preference for sword combat, Basra was going at the thing bare-fisted, striking hard enough to draw small grunts, a bad sign. She was usually too tightly controlled for that. The little sounds she made were high-pitched and incongruously cute, a fact upon which Jenell had far too much sense to ever remark.

She placed herself by the door and stood at attention. Basra had not looked up to acknowledge her, but she knew the woman’s situational awareness was far too acute to have missed the opening and closing of the door.

Jenell didn’t have to wait long. Moments after her arrival, Basra brought the session to an end with a roundhouse kick that sent the dummy careening into the rack of practice weapons standing near it. The lot clattered to the floor, reinforcing the importance of the office’s soundproofing. Kicks like that weren’t part of the Eagle Style, and were in general not a smart thing to try against a competent opponent, or so Jenell had been told by her drill instructor in basic. She could believe it; Basra only did such things when she wanted to make a mess.

“That smug tree rat whore,” she snarled, beginning to pace up and down. Jenell managed not to wince; she’d really hoped the woman would have worked out most of her anger on the dummy. “Showboating little piece of grove trash! It’s not enough she has to show me up for results, when Rouvad is clearly testing us against each other. And she’s doing it by playing her own connections—to the Guild, and that damned paladin. No, then she has to taunt me with this business about Schwartz!”

Calm. Control. Jenell refused to react. She desperately wanted to know what Schwartz had to do with any of this, but instinct and experience warned that if she pulled that string she’d gain a black eye or two. Basra rarely struck her physically, and more rarely still in a way that left marks. When she felt such a lesson was necessary, though, her ability to heal minor wounds on the spot was extremely useful.

“Even Rouvad isn’t this blind,” Basra growled, stopping in her pacing and turning to stare across her office at the window behind her desk. “No… So that’s how it is, Farzida? Fine. Fine. I’m still twice the—three times the anything your pet elf is. Stack the deck all you want, I’ll still mop the floor with her scalp.” She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders swelling, and let it out slowly. Finally, some of the anger melted from her expression. It did not vanish completely, though, even as she smiled. “And yours, some day. Soon enough.”

Jenell kept silent, staring straight ahead, lest Basra happened to glance over and catch her watching. It had occurred to her before that some of the things Basra allowed her to overhear would get the Bishop severely rebuked at minimum… If she were fool enough to think that pitting her word against Basra’s would go in her favor. She didn’t know if this was a test of her loyalty, or merely of her restraint. For all that so much of her life focused around predicting and responding to Basra’s moods, so much of the woman’s thought process was opaque to her.

“Locke is only getting anywhere because she has connections,” Basra murmured, scowling intently into the distance, now. “I don’t know how she got in with those Eserite kids so quickly… That’s what I’ll need to undercut.”

At one time, Jenell had thought herself quite clever—cunning, even. Months under Basra’s authority had taught her what cunning was, and that hers didn’t compare; it was all she could do to proceed slowly with her research toward what she hoped would be her mentor’s unmaking without being caught. She’d never been sly enough to spot an opportunity like this, develop a plan, and take action, all on the spur of the moment.

Which was why it was fortunate she’d developed that plan already, and been watching intently for just such an opening.

“What if you just took over her connections?” she asked.

Basra shot her an irritated look. “Be quiet, you silly cow, I’m—” She broke off, staring blankly at Jenell.

Suddenly, Basra turned on her heel and strode across the room, straight for her. Jenell allowed her face to express alarm and backed up against the door. Most of the time she kept her self-control iron-clad, but she’d learned long since that Basra rather enjoyed seeing her afraid.

The Bishop didn’t stop until she was standing close enough that Jenell could feel her breath on her cheek.

“Jenell,” she murmured, “I do believe I owe you an apology.”

“Oh, um, I’m sure that’s not—”

“Hush.” Basra laid a finger over her lips. “That was an excellent suggestion you just had; exactly what I need. And a reminder of why I keep you around, which is certainly not for your filing skills or because you’re particularly good in bed.” Fingers lightly grazed that spot just above her hip where there was a small gap in the armor, and she shuddered. Basra’s lips quirked sideways in amusement. “That socialite’s animal cunning, though. You’re going to make a more than adequate politician someday, my dear.”

“Uh…thank you.”

“You’ll have to get rid of that stammer, of course,” Basra said dismissively, abruptly stepping away and beginning to pace again. “There is absolutely no reason for an intelligent person to make noises like ‘uh.’ You have got to be able to pass yourself off as an intelligent person, Jenell, or they’ll eat you alive out there. Honestly, how you managed without me to hold your hand is an ongoing mystery. It’s a damned shame about Elwick—but then, if you had the wit or the spine to stand up to me that way, you wouldn’t be benefiting from my patronage now.”

Jenell kept silent. Oddly, she wasn’t even particularly offended anymore. Of all the things she put up with, insults like this were commonplace and minor. It was a good sign, if anything; Basra didn’t talk this way when she was in a bad enough mood to do something that could actually hurt her.

“Locke’s connections,” the Bishop mused to herself as she paced. “She’s on the outs with the Guild, even Darling doesn’t like her. And I’d get nowhere with them. That’s neutral. Trissiny is untouchable, but the girl is both unformed and already deeply suspicious of Locke. If she’s reaching out to her… Have to put a stop to that. And those kids, now. What they need is friends and allies. The sort who haven’t thrown them in cells.”

She halted, turned to face her aide, and folded her hands behind her back, smiling pleasantly. Jenell experienced a small frisson of true fear.

“Jenell,” Basra said calmly, “I have a task for you.”

“What do you need, your Grace?”

“You’re going to find those kids Locke is cultivating, the Eserites, and befriend them. You have permission to act out of armor—in fact, it’s probably better if you do at least part of the time. They are to work for me, not for Principia Locke.”

“Ah, your Grace,” Jenell said nervously.

“What did I literally just finish saying to you about umms and uhhs? Shut up when I’m talking, it’s not as if you have anything useful to contribute, anyway. Make what use of those kids you can while getting them kindly disposed toward me. But your primary target is Trissiny Avelea. That’s the one I need most of all. She knows me as a helpful figure, she’s uncertain about Locke, and I need both those attitudes reinforced. Make it happen.”

“I’m… How should I approach them?”

“Must I do everything for you?” Basra said irritably. “Follow Locke’s squad, if you can’t think of anything better. They’re already working with the brats; they’ll lead you to wherever you can go to intercept them. And Avelea is your in, if you can’t manage to arrange one of your own. She’s a smart one—no Hand of Avei has ever shown the kind of initiative she’s taken, learning the Guild’s ways. It’s the next best thing to studying with the Black Wreath themselves. That girl may actually live to see her thirtieth birthday, and accomplish more than beating back the tide, which would be a departure from her predecessors’ track record. Help her, but above all, bring her to me. If she doesn’t need your help—which is almost certainly the case, considering her and considering you—she’ll be willing to help you if you create a need. She’s a protective one, is Avelea.”

“Ma’am,” Jenell said desperately, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this. I don’t know anything about associating with that kind of…riffraff.”

Basra smiled. “Then I suggest you get to work developing new skills, Jenell. One can never have too many, after all.” Abruptly her voice sharpened. “Well? Why are you still here?”

Jenell snapped off a salute, and fumbled with the door in the process of skittering out.

She kept herself to a fast pace all the way down the hall and around the corner; the door didn’t open behind her, but its frosted glass pane could have given Basra a wavery view of her retreating back, had the Bishop bothered to watch her. It was never worth making assumptions or taking risks with Basra Syrinx.

Once around the turn, though, she slowed to a more normal pace, and, finding herself alone in the hall, permitted herself a grin of fierce triumph.

That was the first part, done.


Busking was beneath her dignity, of course. Imagine, playing the guitar on a street corner, like…any of the people who plied a trade on street corners. Not a one of those potential trades were anything Ami Talaari wanted anything to do with. And worse, what if someone important saw her? This was a block toward the walls from the Temple of Avei—still a central district of the city, close enough to Imperial Square that, even at this tedious hour of midmorning, the right sort of people might be about. She consoled herself with the thought that most of those whose attention she courted would still be asleep, the better to be out conniving and carousing long into the night.

Fortunately, she wasn’t kept waiting long.

Principia drew looks, as always when walking the city with her helmet off. The respect commanded by a Silver Legionnaire contrasted with the suspicion accorded an elf. Ami rather doubted Locke ever had to deal with racist imprecations; she didn’t get as many tipped hats and murmured blessings as most of her sisters-in-arms, probably, but still. Rare was the fool who wanted to start a fight with the Legions.

All this was quite useful at this moment, as it meant the few other passersby kept a respectful distance from Locke as she strode past Ami’s corner, pausing to drop a coin into her guitar case. No one was close enough to hear the elf murmur.

“She bought it.”

Ami nodded to her, not pausing in her song, just as she would any other patron. Her face remained in a smile that held despite her singing. Of course, it was now a genuine smile, but the punters would never know the difference.

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10 – 50

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“Well, this ain’t the least bit awkward,” Joe muttered, folding his arms and lounging against the wall of the courtyard. Despite the relaxed pose, he betrayed tension in the set of his shoulders and the way his eyes darted about.

Fort Naveen, like all the fortifications along the southern border, was an Imperial installation, but was administered and staffed partly by the Silver Legions. With the high state of alert due to the recent crisis and the large numbers of troops moved into the region, there were a lot of Legionnaires present, many obviously on duty guarding the walls and various doorways.

A good number of those were staring flatly at Ingvar, whose expression had grown increasingly sardonic the longer it had gone on.

“What is everybody’s problem?” Aspen asked. She sounded genuinely curious, not upset, though with her moods it could be difficult to tell. “Why don’t they like Ingvar? I like Ingvar. He’s nice, even when he’s being a jerk.”

“Thank you,” Ingvar said dryly, though a smile did steal onto his features.

“Politics,” Ami said with a long-suffering sigh. “Religious politics, which is even worse. Everyone is so convinced they alone are holy, and anyone who dares disagree with them must be an absolute monster.”

“Good to see you rallying to the defense of our Huntsman friend,” Jenell said with a catlike little smirk. “I seem to recall you being upset at Bishop Syrinx for nearly getting you scalped by Shaathists.”

“No Shaathist would do such a thing,” Ingvar exclaimed.

“Jenell,” Ami said, arching an eyebrow, “it is hardly polite to point out my hypocrisy in front of everyone.”

“Terribly sorry. I’ll assume I have the same coming later.”

“I’m mentally amending my calendar as we speak.”

Ingvar fixed his gaze on the bard, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Do I know you?”

“I’m afraid not,” Ami said sweetly.

“I never understand what’s going on when people get off on these tangents,” Aspen muttered. “It’s so much easier when it was just the four of us.”

“Mm hm,” Joe mused. “That was a pretty serene few hours.”

“Why do these soldiers all dislike you?” the dryad asked Ingvar. “They don’t even know you!”

“Well, the bard is correct,” he explained. “Religion, and politics. The Huntsmen of Shaath and the Sisters of Avei have very fundamental disagreements, which has led to a lot of arguing, ill-feeling and even occasional violence. We naturally react to one another with suspicion. For me to be in one of their fortresses is…pushing their tolerance.”

“This isn’t actually one of their fortresses, as I understand it,” Schwartz said, frowning. Meesie was sitting in his palm, leaning against his thumb, which was absently scratching behind her ear.

Ingvar shrugged. “I don’t begrudge them the suspicion; this is more or less how a Sister would be treated in a lodge.”

“A Sister would be very unlikely to be in a lodge,” Jenell said pointedly.

“And I would be very unlikely to be here,” Ingvar agreed with the ghost of a smile. “Life is strange.”

“I say, I didn’t realize things were that amicable,” Schwartz said, glancing between Ingvar and Aspen. His fascination with the dryad appeared to be innocent and intellectual; at any rate, he was mostly interested in talking to her and hardly seemed to register that she was an attractive woman wearing nothing but an ill-fitting duster. He’d backed off, however, once she informed him the attention was annoying. “I mean, not that I’d be in a position to know, exactly, but you know how it is. The Avenists and the Shaathists, that’s one of the great rivalries among the cults! It’s sort of infamous.”

“Almost like Avenists and Elilinists,” Ami said, grinning.

“Or Avenists and Eserites,” added Joe.

“Or Avenists and Izarites,” Jenell said thoughtfully.

“The person of a guest is sacrosanct,” Ingvar said firmly. “That point is enshrined in Shaathist tradition, but it predates the religion. The principle exists in some form in virtually every culture. A Sister or Legionnaire or anyone who sought shelter in a lodge would be given food, warmth, quarters, whatever they needed that it was able to provide. It would likely be tense; Huntsmen are not trained for diplomacy as a rule, and I doubt she would be made to feel particularly welcome. But none would disgrace the lodge by mistreating a guest. This is fair, and about typical,” he added, glancing around at several of the nearby Legionnaires, a few of whom were within earshot. “I was treated much the same when I visited the Temple of Avei in Tiraas. I cannot fault the courtesy, nor condemn the suspicion.”

“You visited the Temple of Avei?” Ami exclaimed. “Whatever brought that on?”

He sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I’m a bard. I love long stories.”

“I don’t,” Aspen muttered. “This is real interesting, but I’m gonna go talk to one of these.” She turned and stepped toward the nearest Legionnaire, who stiffened visibly.

“Aspen,” Ingvar said firmly, “be nice to them. We are guests here.”

“I’m not gonna eat anybody,” the dryad said irritably, at which several Legionnaires turned to stare at her and a passing squad of Imperial soldiers faltered, a few reaching toward their weapons.

“Everything’s under control, boys,” Joe said, tipping his hat to them. “Best keep movin’.”

“Well, I’m glad to see everybody getting along!” Bishop Darling called cheerfully, striding toward them across the courtyard from the fortress’s central keep.

“How’d it go?” Joe asked quickly, straightening up.

“Classified, mostly,” Darling replied, coming to a stop amid the group, and glanced over at Aspen, who was now speaking quietly to the nervous-looking Legionnaire she’d picked, while several others hovered tensely nearby. “Do we…have a problem?”

“I don’t believe so,” Ingvar replied. “She understands respect for other sentients, at least intellectually, and talking to people is going to be essential in deepening that understanding. Regardless, I’m watching her.”

“Absolutely incredible,” Schwartz breathed. Meesie scampered up his arm onto his shoulder, cheeping in agreement.

“The meeting?” Ingvar prompted Darling, who tore his gaze from the dryad.

“Yes, right. Like I said, most of it isn’t for discussion outside that room, but generally speaking I think the crisis has passed. There are far too many lingering unknowns and points of interest for it to be dropped; the Sisterhood and the Empire are going to continue picking at this for a good while, at minimum. Very likely the Church and a few other cults will get involved; I understand the College has already been contributing,” he added, smiling at Schwartz.

“We do what we can!” the witch said cheerfully. “Um, what happened to the other two Bishops, if I may ask?”

“Ah, yes, that was the first thing I meant to tell you,” said Darling. “The Azure Corps is lending portal mages to get people where they need to go, while they’re all here. Branwen’s already back in Tiraas by now; Basra will be departing for the Abbey to brief Abbess Darnassy as soon as her group is assembled. I understand that means you guys.”

“Crap,” Jenell muttered. “She does not like waiting. Which way?”

“Central mess hall, though the doors and down the corridor,” he replied. “The Corps has an impromptu departure station set up.”

“Well, I guess we’re off, then!” Schwartz said, already moving after Jenell, who had saluted once before striding off. “Thanks, your Grace! Lovely to meet all of you! Tell Miss Aspen I said good-bye!”

“I will,” Ingvar assured him, though Schwartz had already turned and was nearly out of earshot, then muttered with a glance at the dryad, “not that I expect her to care.”

“Isn’t that you, too, ma’am?” Joe asked Ami.

“Yes, yes, I suppose it is,” she said languidly, finally setting off after the other two at a leisurely pace. “I can’t have people thinking they can order me about, though, that would never do. You know how it is.”

“Uh…sure,” he said uncertainly to her retreating back. “Nice meetin’ you.”

The three remaining glanced over at Aspen again. The Legionnaire she had captured was listening, still wary but seeming somewhat less tense now. It appeared to be a rather one-sided conversation, though, just distant enough that the dryad’s low voice was indistinct.

“Which brings up the next question,” said Darling. “What do we do about her?”

“She goes with me, obviously,” Ingvar said, watching Aspen with a faint smile. After a moment, he blinked and straightened, turning back to them. “Excuse me, I didn’t mean that to be as brusque as it came out. But after thinking it over, it does seem obvious. She’s already stated she wants to stay with me, and… Well, she needs to grow accustomed to other people, learn how to treat them. Somebody she trusts had better stick around for that.”

“While I’m sure bringin’ her back to the lodge would make you a celebrity,” Joe said carefully, “I really can’t see takin’ her into Tiraas as a good idea.”

“Never mind good idea,” Darling agreed, “that’s extremely illegal. Don’t mistake the tolerance she’s getting here on a frontier during a crisis for a change in policy. Dryads aren’t allowed into Imperial-held cities.”

“Now I think on it,” Joe mused, “I’m not sure how the Empire could stop ‘er without rilin’ up big mama.”

“The Empire hasn’t lasted a thousand years by shooting every problem it faces,” Darling said dryly. “The Azure Corps is responsible for dryad incursions, or in their absence, any Imperial personnel with teleportation ability. If a dryad wanders too close to a city and won’t be dissuaded, they’re simply picked up and moved somewhere else. Usually as close to the Deep Wild as it’s safe to teleport.”

“Bet they don’t like that,” Joe murmured.

“No, they do not,” Darling agreed. “But they mostly don’t seem to have the attention span to make an issue of it. I’ve never heard of a dryad having to be removed repeatedly. Generally, I guess they just prefer to go off and do something less annoying.”

“I’m certain all of that’s true,” Ingvar said quietly, still gazing in the direction of Aspen, though his mind was clearly far away. “It still works, however, since I am not going back to Tiraas.” He blinked again, then turned to Darling. “In fact, thank you for reminding me. I was going to ask if you would carry a letter to Brother Andros for me.”

“Gladly,” Darling said immediately. “So, you’ve had time to think on your next move, then?”

“It’s not as if we’ve had a lot to do but think while you and Bishop Syrinx were conversing with various sinister powers,” he said wryly. “That, and talk with the others.”

“I’ve gotta say,” Joe added with a grin, “you’re fallin’ behind, your Grace. The other Bishop managed to put together a bigger an’ stranger posse even than you.”

“Now, I contest that,” Darling said solemnly, holding up a hand. “Aspen is plenty strange enough to beat any competition.”

“I can hear you, by the way,” the dryad called over her shoulder.

“Considering the source, my dear,” Darling called back, bowing to her, “it was purely a compliment.”

She gave him an amused little smile before turning back to her new friend, who was beginning to look actually interested in the conversation.

“But I have my own path to seek,” Ingvar said, still gazing at Aspen. “I am not yet sure what to do with what I have learned from this journey…not all of it, anyway. I do know that I cannot step back into my life as it was. My faith… Everything I thought I understood is wrong. Or if not wrong, incomplete…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what to do about it.”

“You seem pretty calm, for a fella who just had the rug yanked out from under him like that,” Joe observed.

“Because I have a plan,” Ingvar agreed, nodding. “If I were as lost as I had been after that night on the mountain… But no, not anymore. I don’t know how to help Shaath, or how to fix the Huntsmen, or if I even can do either of those things. The steps right in front of me, though, are clear. I need to learn more. My quest now is for understanding of the areas my education has failed to cover. And in that, I already have places to start.”

“Where’ll you go next?” Darling asked quietly.

“I haven’t completely decided,” Ingvar said, finally turning back to face him. “Since Aspen will be accompanying me, it makes sense I should speak with her about the options before picking a destination. But I do know where to seek the wisdom I need: the elves, and the Rangers.”

“I think it might be wise to let Veilgrad settle down a mite before bringin’ Aspen into the vicinity,” Joe suggested. “Not that she won’t be a hit with the Rangers, I reckon, but the Imperials around the city’re already on high alert, an’ after this rhubarb out here, droppin’ a dryad on their doorstep might get a response you won’t like.”

“Hm.” Ingvar frowned in thought. “You make a solid point, Joe. Perhaps that’s for the best, anyway. There are few better places to avoid the Empire’s notice than an elven grove… And in all likelihood, the Elders there are the best possible choices to help Aspen, as well as me.”

“There’s also the fact that Aspen will automatically get a warm welcome at the grove,” Darling added, “which might help you get one. Elves as a general rule aren’t hugely fond of visitors in their forests.”

“Yes,” Ingvar agreed, “there is that.” He paused, glancing back and forth between them, then smiled. “Strange how quickly I’ve come to appreciate your perspectives. It has only been a few days, but I shall miss you both.”

“Likewise,” Joe replied, smiling. “I hope this ain’t a permanent goodbye.”

“Considering where I’ll be and doing that,” Darling added, “I’m not sure how I’ll be in a position to help you with your quest going forward, Ingvar. But if that should ever become a possibility, all you’ve gotta do is ask.”

“I appreciate it, Antonio,” the Huntsman replied, smiling and inclining his head. “And the same goes. To both of you.”

“And hey, if nothing else, you’re heading off with more pleasing company than either of us,” Darling said, grinning broadly. “Dangerous as hell company, but still.”

“Mm.” Ingvar glanced at Aspen again. “I don’t really think of her that way.”

“You’re joking,” said Joe. “I think of her that way a little, an’ I’m mostly terrified of ‘er.”

The Huntsman smiled. “Well, not that I don’t see your point… But I’ve talked with her more than either of you, and something about her is…childlike.”

“In seriousness, though,” said Darling, “if you’re not looking to pursue that kind of relationship, watch your step. Right now you’re her only anchor to the wide world of humanity. You’re the guy who rescued her from imprisonment, and you’ve positioned yourself as the father figure setting the boundaries she needs to understand how to cope with society. The attachment taking shape there could end up working in a lot of ways, but you’d better not take any of them lightly.”

“What will be, will be,” Ingvar said, barely above a whisper. “And if nothing else… I want to help her simply for the sake of helping her, of course. But there is also the fact that, based on what we learned in the Data Vault, the best way to help Shaath and the other gods may be to help Naiya regain her own agency.”

“And,” Joe said slowly, “based on what else we learned down there, the best way to do that might start with the dryads.”

“Exactly,” Ingvar said quietly.

Aspen looked over at him again, and smiled.


The afternoon was already declining, shadows of the surrounding Viridill mountains casting the Abbey into dimness, when Basra and Jenell finally emerged from the central structure into the secluded side courtyard in which their borrowed carriage was parked. It had already been packed by a pair of novices who had since retreated, and stood idle, piled with the luggage and effects of both women.

“Ah, hello!” Schwartz said, bounding upright from where he’d been sitting beneath the mimosa tree nearby. The walled space was only paved in the area in front of the Abbey’s side door, the rest of the area left as a small garden with a fountain, a few flowering shrubs, and the lone pink-blossomed tree. “Good evening! All settled, then, ready to go?”

“Why, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said in a mild tone, stopping at the foot of the steps down from the Abbey to regard him with her head tilted to one side. “Were you waiting for us?”

“Oh, well,” he said awkwardly, dry-washing his hands. “It’s just, you know. I realize this sort of thing must be all in a day’s work for you, your Grace, but it’s been a pretty big deal for me! All the excitement, being part of history… Not as if I can just brush it all off without at least saying goodbye, can I?”

“Mm hm,” Basra said quietly, one corner of her mouth twisting upward in a faint, partial smile. A few steps behind her, Jenell watched her with a suddenly wary expression. “And, of course, it’s not just me you wanted to see off.”

“Ah.” Schwartz swallowed heavily, a faint blush rising on his cheeks. “Well. You know… I mean, not that… Certainly, your Grace, it’s been great working with you, don’t think—”

“Well, it’s a fair point,” Basra said briskly, striding toward him with a suddenly warm smile. “You’ve been absolutely invaluable to me on this trip, Schwartz. Not that you’re the sort of man I would generally pick to participate in a field exercise, but even so, I haven’t a single criticism about your performance. I have already sent a letter of commendation to Sister Leraine, along with my thanks to her for suggesting you for this. The whole thing would have fallen apart without your help, and that is the simple fact. I don’t intend to let it pass unnoticed.”

He seemed momentarily lost for words; Meesie cheeped once in excitement and ran in a full circle on the top of his head, further disheveling his sandy hair. “Why… Why, Bishop Syrinx, I’m positively… I mean, I only did the best I could. What else can you do, after all, right?”

The Bishop smiled at him, holding out a hand; when he reached to accept it, she shifted swiftly, grasping his wrist in a warrior’s handshake and leaving him fumbling for a moment to understand and then reciprocate the gesture. With her other hand, Basra pointed behind her at Jenell, then snapped her fingers and pointed at the ground nearby. The Legionnaire dutifully stepped forward, her expression still nervous.

“What’s next for you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Basra inquired.

“Back to my research, I suppose,” Schwartz said with a faint grin. He glanced nervously over at Jenell, then down at his arm, which Basra still held clasped. “I mean…it’s the oddest thing, you know? It was all I ever wanted or enjoyed, studying and developing new spells, but after all this… Going to be a little hard to get back into the swing of it, eh?”

“Oh, I know the feeling.”

“And, ah, yourself?” he added tactfully, with a faint tug of his arm. She didn’t let go. “Off back to Tiraas, I hear?”

“Yes, it would appear I’ve been recalled by the High Commander,” Basra said, a catlike smile stretching across her features. “General Panissar wants to have some kind of ceremony thanking me for dealing with the headhunter; it’s going to take some real skulduggery on my part to nip that in the bud. Such accolades usually just end up being a hindrance in my work. Still, the Empire doesn’t officially acknowledge headhunters exist, so I should be able to shut it down.”

“Ah, well,” he said sincerely, “if that’s how you feel, I suppose. But you surely do deserve the attention! That was incredible, the way you handled that situation.”

“Why, thank you,” she replied, her smile stretching half an inch wider. It was beginning to look almost unnatural; Schwartz’s own expression was becoming more uncertain under her unblinking stare. “You know, I usually take great care not to burn bridges, but what the hell. It’s been quite a run, as you said, and I’m in a good mood. And it’s not as if we’re likely to see one another again.”

“I, uh…” He glanced down at his hand again and tugged it more firmly, to no avail. Jenell was beginning to look downright panicked; Meesie had fallen silent and was standing on her toes atop his head, back arched and fur puffed like a scared cat. “I don’t think I quite understand…”

“I am pretty incredible, Schwartz. I’m cunning, well-connected, and more than a match for most opponents in a fight.” Her smile was unwavering, eyes wide, but pupils narrowed almost to pinpricks.

“Um. I…”

Basra lashed out with her other hand, seizing Jenell by her regulation bun and hauling her forward. The Bishop twisted her head around, still keeping a grip on Schwartz’s arm, and kissed Jenell full on the mouth, hard.

Jenell’s eyes were wide and panicked; after only a second, she squeezed them shut, unresisting. A second later and she forced herself to relax against the taller woman’s grip.

Schwartz gaped at them, ashen-faced, from barely two feet away, Meesie absolutely rigid in his hair.

Basra abruptly released Jenell and, with a contemptuous jerk of her hair, shoved her away.

“Which you should keep firmly in mind,” she said pleasantly to Schwartz as though nothing had interrupted their discussion, “the next time you get the urge to put your grubby little fingers on someone else’s things.” Basra held his aghast gaze for two seconds of silence, smiling, before continuing. “If you forget, just keep in mind that you won’t be the one paying for it.”

“You—” He broke off, choking, and swallowed; Meesie actually burst into flames, which didn’t so much as singe his hair. “You can’t—”

“Covrin,” Basra said calmly, keeping her eyes locked on Schwartz’s, her fingers digging into his wrist. “How’d you like a change of assignment? If you are at all tired of working with me…under me…just say the word. You may pick any unit in the Silver Legions and I’ll pull every string I can reach to make it happen. Well? What do you say?”

Jenell’s face was white and her posture rigid, eyes fixed on the ground. “No, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that? Do speak up.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Say it, Jenell,” Basra snarled with such abrupt ferocity that both of them flinched back from her.

Jenell drew in a deep breath, squared her shoulders. “I am happy with my current assignment, your Grace. I’d prefer to remain in your service.” She stared straight ahead, refusing to look at either of them.

“Well, there you go,” Basra said lightly, again smiling. “Get in the carriage.”

Jenell stepped past them without another word, swiftly climbing into the driver’s seat.

“Thank you for all your excellent work, Mr. Schwartz,” Basra said with a kind smile. “Best of luck in your future endeavors.”

She strolled off at a leisurely pace, lifting herself into the passenger seat and sprawling idly with one arm draped over the side of the carriage, a picture of relaxation.

Squealing with rage, Meesie bounded down to Schwartz’s shoulder and then launched herself after Basra in a flaming, flying tackle. Schwartz deftly caught her in midair, where the little fire-mouse struggled against his fist, squeaking furiously and putting off sparks which clearly did him no harm. Aside from that one motion of his arm, Schwartz stood as if petrified, staring emptily at the two women in the carriage.

It hummed to life, and a moment later pulled forward through the gate, heading off down the road to the town and the Rail station below. Neither of them looked back.

Long moments stretched past, the last crimson sunlight fading and the garden courtyard falling into true dusk. Fairy lamps set in sconces around the walls came to life, changing the color of the light. All the while, Schwartz stood poleaxed in place, gazing out the open gate. Meesie finally stopped thrashing and sparking, her fire dissipating until she glowed with only her usual soft, red glimmer. Eventually, she did manage to wriggle free of his frozen grip, whereupon she climbed back up his arm to his shoulder and pressed her front paws to his cheek, cheeping worriedly.

At last, Schwartz shook himself off. Quite suddenly, his blank expression fell into a resolute frown. He reached up, patted Meesie reassuringly, straightened his robe, and took a step toward the gate.

“Going somewhere, Mr. Schwartz?”

He paused, turning back to the Abbey’s door. Abbess Darnassy had just emerged, limping along on her cane, and began the process of navigating the short stairs one careful step at a time, her piercing gaze never leaving him.

“I…” He swallowed and squared his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I have to be going. Thank you for your hospitality, Abbess.”

“Just a moment, if you please.”

“I really need to go. Goodbye.” He turned and made two more steps.

“Young man, get back here this instant.”

Schwartz was halfway back to her before he seemed to realize what he was doing; his face fell into a scowl partway, but after a brief hesitation in his step, he kept going, arriving before the Abbess just as she reached the ground.

“Well, good,” she said with a smile. “You respect your elders, anyway.”

“Reflex,” he admitted. “You sounded alarmingly like my mother just then.”

“As a matter of fact, I met Sergeant Schwartz once. A solid woman, and a good officer. Though it’s Sheriff Schwartz now, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes,” he said absently, turning his head to stare again at the gate. “And if you can say it five times fast, she’ll buy you a drink…”

“It’s Herschel, isn’t it?” At the Abbess’s suddenly more gentle tone, he turned back to her, eyebrows rising. “Herschel… That young woman is a Legionnaire in Avei’s service. I’ve watched her carefully while the Bishop has been here, and while there is definitely some manner of duress at play, it is equally clear that she tolerates her situation for specific reasons of her own. Not good reasons, I strongly suspect, but she is no one’s damsel in distress. If you go trying to treat her as such, you will be disappointed, to say the least.”

He scowled at the old woman, Meesie squeaking an indignant counterpoint. “There’s a big difference between rescuing someone and helping them…ma’am.”

“Good.” Narnasia nodded in clear approval. “Good boy. In that case, before you begin whatever it is you are planning to attempt, you will do three things.”

“I will?” he replied, nonplussed.

“First,” she continued relentlessly, “you will visit elven groves until you find one where an Elder is willing to speak with you, and have them explain in detail what the word anth’auwa means. You have the word in mind?”

“Sure, I suppose,” he said, frowning. “What’s this—”

“Repeat it back to me.”

Schwartz’s mouth tightened momentarily in gathering aggravation, but he obeyed. “Anth’auwa, correct? That was it?”

“Good. Make sure you remember it. Second, you will be certain you have a good number of combat spells in your personal repertory and are well-practiced at using them. Specifically, you’ll study spells useful in combating divine magic users, which I understand is the inherent weak point in your chosen magical focus.”

“Um…”

“Third,” she said, staring severely up at him, “you will make a friend or other contact in the Thieves’ Guild, and have them coach you as much as they are willing to in politics. Which is, after all, the execution of war by subtler means. Be acquainted with the mindset and the methods of slimy people who live by manipulation. No one can better teach you that than an Eserite.”

“How in the bloody world would you suggest I make friends with a thief?” he exclaimed.

“Well, since you asked so sweetly,” the Abbess said, raising an eyebrow of disapproval, “the quickest way is to offer them something they want. I’ve no doubt your cult has access to various spells or reagents that are useful for nefarious purposes and which the Guild would love to traffic in. All you have to do is find a relatively personable member who’s interested in making some unscrupulous coin—which is most of them—and you’re in.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this,” he said, staring at her. “You’re suggesting I steal from my own cult, now?” Meesie squeaked in incredulous agreement.

“I hardly think that would be necessary,” Narnasia said wryly. “Far simpler to approach Bishop Throale and tell him you’re looking to cultivate contacts in the Thieves’ Guild. Throale will probably give you trinkets to trade out of the College’s own budget. Eserites are useful to know for a variety of reasons, and they’re standoffish with the other cults. You’ll get much further in life by providing people something they want than by fighting everybody. Consider that your first lesson in politics.”

“Huh,” he said, still frowning, but now in thought.

“Remember,” Narnasia said sharply. “What are the three things you are to do?”

Schwartz focused his gaze on her again, his scowl deepening, but he replied dutifully. “Learn what anth’auwa means from the elves, study anti-divine combat magic, approach the Thieves’ Guild to learn about…cloak and dagger stuff. Satisfied?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “When you have done all that… Then, and only then, will you attempt to take on Basra Syrinx.”

Schwart’s eyes widened. He took a half step backward from her. “I… I don’t…”

“Please, don’t waste my time with disingenuous demurrals,” she said irritably. “You’re even easier to read than most young people, which is a big part of the problem before you. Syrinx is a creature of politics. The moment you start making moves at her, she will know it. At that point you had better be prepared to contend with her, because you will have no more time to learn how. Understand?”

She held his gaze in silence for a long few moments. Finally, he swallowed heavily.

“Why… I mean, Bishop Syrinx clearly has some…favor, in Tiraas. With the Church, and the High Commander. Why would you…tell me this?”

Narnasia sighed heavily, beginning the process of turning around to clamber back up the stairs and into her Abbey. “Avei is a goddess of multiple aspects, Herschel. In war, it may sometimes seem advisable or even necessary to keep a particularly dangerous weapon on hand. The Sisterhood has its High Commander to oversee its pursuit of war, and I will not gainsay her decisions. But there are other values in Avei’s service. Greater ones, I think. Remember what I told you, young man. Be careful.”

“Do you…” He hesitated. “Um, can I help you back in?”

“Go on, be off with you,” she said without turning around, waving a hand irritably. “Leave an old woman to her own battles. Goddess knows I’ve few enough left.”

He stood, though, watching until she was back inside the Abbey, before turning to go. Meesie climbed back up onto his head, nestling herself quietly in his hair, her thoughtful silence echoing his own.

It was quite dark outside, the path downhill difficult to see. The winding road was well-lit, but there was a more direct staircase toward the town, currently vanishing down into darkness. Red still stained the sky, but the sunset was on the opposite side of the mountains, leaving the stretch between the Abbey and the lights of the village far below lost in shadow. Schwartz sighed at the sight, then held out a hand.

Wind swirled gently about his palm, spiraling faster until it burst into a melon-sized flame. The loose fireball continued to whirl, shrinking and compacting itself down until it coalesced fully into a single spark of brilliant golden light. The marble-sized sun was better than a torch, providing a wide area of illumination.

“I say, that is a neat trick!”

Schwartz jumped and yelped, whirling to find Ami Talaari perched on a low retaining wall just outside the gate. She had been in complete shadow, and now blinked at the brilliance of his palm-light. Meesie sat upright on his head, shrilly scolding the bard.

“I couldn’t help overhearing that,” Ami said lightly, hopping down and slinging her guitar case over one shoulder.

“Couldn’t you,” Schwartz said, scowling.

“Well, naturally not,” she replied with a smile, “being that I was shamelessly eavesdropping. That’s rather the point, don’t you think?”

He sighed. “Ami, I’m really not in a great mood, so forgive me if I’m blunt. What do you want?”

“Do you remember,” she said, ambling up beside him, “when I first arrived at the house in Vrin Shai? When I was so irate to find Basra Syrinx there, due to past dealings between us, and she explained in such perfect detail why that had all been a misunderstanding, and absolutely no fault of hers?”

“I suppose so,” he said, frowning suspiciously.

Ami smiled. “It was a pack of utter, shameless lies. In point of fact, I’m not one to just blithely accept what I’m told—no bard worthy of the name is. I’d done my own research on those events long before coming to Viridill, and I know exactly what happened. That woman left me hung out to dry, at the very real risk of my life—and I wasn’t the only person she’d done that to, that night. In fact, I was just incidental. Collateral damage in her ploy to destroy a squad of her own soldiers whom she found…inconvenient. Oh, I know what she did. I know what she is. And I knew, when Bishop Snowe invited me here, that she was present.”

Schwartz stared at her in confusion. “But…then why did you stay? Why did you come?”

“Because a bard’s response to dangerous circumstances is very much unlike an average, sensible person’s.” Her expression slowly sobered, until she looked more intent, more serious, than he had ever seen her. “Some people, Schwartz, can be reasoned with. Some can even be redeemed. But there are some who are so completely defective, on such a fundamental level, that they can only be destroyed. I encountered one just as I was being elevated to the station of a fully accredited bard of Vesk. I wouldn’t be much of a bard if I had just walked away and left that alone, now would I?” She shook her head. “But the way to destroy a monster like that is not to go charging at her with an ax. It starts slowly, carefully, with observing her as closely as possible, to see her habits, her strengths, her weaknesses. And then…then begins the hard part.”

Ami tilted her head, one corner of her mouth turning up in a thin smile. “Think you’re up for it?”

Schwartz stared at her in silence for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Well. I guess I’d better be. Because I’m in.”

“Smashing!” Grinning delightedly, Ami smoothly tucked her arm into his and turned them toward the stairs down the mountainside. “Now, I’m afraid we’re a tad late to catch a Rail caravan out of this backwater tonight, but perhaps it’s just as well. We can find an inn in town, get rooms and some dinner. I do believe we have quite a lot to talk about.”

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