Tag Archives: Joseph P. Jenkins

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“I need someone to say how quiet it is,” the Jackal murmured, easing back into the alley from having peeked around the corner. He turned to grin at the rest of them. “You know. So I can make the obvious rejoinder.”

He was met by a cluster of unimpressed expressions.

“It’s too quiet,” he clarified, seeming on the verge of bursting into laughter.

“You see what I have to deal with?” Shook muttered to Joe. “Every day with this crap.”

“My heart bleeds,” Joe retorted. “Although, to be fair, that was just the once.”

They all ducked at the sudden gust of wind that swooped into the alley. Seconds later, a stack of old crates a few yards back shook slightly, and Kheshiri popped back into view atop it, wings still spread from her glide.

“Well?” Shook demanded.

“It’s a trap,” the succubus reported.

“Didn’t we already know that?” Rook stage whispered. Moriarty nudged him with the butt of his staff, scowling.

“No, no, this is good news,” Kheshiri continued, grinning, as she folded her wings against her back. “It was supposed to be a trap, but it’s been neutered. The guy in charge is gonna try to ambush us right out there on the street, he’s got his people positioned packed into alleys and a couple ground-floor rooms in the surrounding area. But! The Thieves’ Guild have finally got off their butts and been moving, too, and they do quick and quiet a lot better than these guys. They’ve ambushed several of the shadow-jumpers and have been blocking doors. I don’t think they’ll be able to contain the whole horde, there are still at least a couple scores of ’em, but Mr. Big Shot out there is gonna be very underwhelmed when he tries to spring his ambush.”

“How, exactly, do you know this guy’s in charge?” Joe demanded.

“Because he’s the only one I can sense,” she said condescendingly. “I told you the others are on drugs—all I get from them is…fuzz. They’re like a sea, not like individuals. The ones using magic, though, and this guy, they’re alert and focused. And this one’s standing still, not shadow-jumping around, which makes him in charge. We take him out—”

“You can read minds?” Finchley blurted out in horror.

“Not quite,” Danny murmured. “Children of Vanislaas can sense desires, though. It’s an intuitive thing. I never heard of one making such tactical use of the skill, though…”

“I’m a piece of work,” Kheshiri said smugly. “Right, master?”

“That’s my girl,” Shook said, then snapped his fingers and pointed to the ground by his feet. The demon obediently hopped down from her crate and went to heel with an unnecessarily slinky gait, deliberately turning to brush her bust against Finchley’s chest as she squeezed past and causing him to turn nearly scarlet.

“As a point of general reference,” said Joe, “you guys trust the demon because…?”

“People make such a fuss about trust,” the Jackal mused, shaking his head woefully. “We work as a group because we all know what we want and what we’re like. And Kheshiri will be in deep shit if anything excessively bad happens to her precious master, there. Considering we’re not only in mortal danger but surrounded by Guild enforcers who specifically want to haul his ass away in chains, she’ll behave herself. And she’s right; if we’ve identified the leader, and he thinks he has the upper hand but doesn’t, this is our chance to finish this.”

“Undead,” Vannae said weakly. He had regained some of the color in his cheeks, but was still having trouble breathing, apparently.

“Ah, yes,” the Jackal said, “that. When I said ‘undead,’ I didn’t mean skeletons and zombies. He’s got some real nastiness waiting in the wings. Soon as his trap fails to go off, he’ll drop that hammer, so we’ve gotta finish this fast.”

“Vampires?” Finchley squeaked.

“Kid, if there was a vampire after us, most of this group would be dead already,” the Jackal said disdainfully. “Constructs. Big ones. Constructed undead are pretty fragile, but they hit hard. Better by far if we put a stop to this before they come into play.”

Rook cleared his throat. “Uh, doesn’t it seem likely the thieves will attack him once that starts? Him and possibly us, since we’re with Shook?”

“Fuck my life,” Shook muttered. Kheshiri snuggled against his side, and he absentmindedly patted her rear.

“Yep,” the Jackal said cheerfully. “Well, what’re you jokers all standing around for? This beehive ain’t gonna kick itself!”


“Here?”

“I—I don’t know!” Maureen said frantically, clearly on the verge of tears. “I wasn’t—it all looks the same, it’s just grass and I can’t see over it—”

Sheyann stepped over to the horse and reached up to lay a hand gently on Maureen’s leg. The gnome broke off, choking back a sob, then blinked down at the elf.

“One breath at a time,” the Elder said, radiating calm. Maureen nodded, hiccuping again, and squeezed her eyes shut, clearly reaching for self-control. Sheyann shifted her attention to Whisper’s other rider. “Gabriel, did you happen to take note of your surroundings?”

“’Fraid I have the same problem, uh, Elder,” he said, frowning around at the horizon. “I was distracted trying to find the girls, and…this all looks the same to me. I came north toward the Sea, so it’s this general area…”

“It’s here,” said Wyrnst, who was barely visible through the tallgrass, being a foot shorter than its average height. “It’s fading fast, but…there’s a characteristic smell about this, so to speak. Infernal magic was used…not quite here, but across the dimensional barrier from this spot. I’ve encountered similar in the aftermath of major summonings. From what I know of how the Golden Sea works, it could cause the same residue. Can you sense anything?”

“Agitation,” Haunui murmured, gazing out across the tallgrass. “The wind speaks of its anger. They call this a sea?”

“We know that’s how centaurs navigate,” said Tellwyrn, striding forward to join Sheyann. “Shift the Darklands, cause a corresponding shift on this side of the barrier, at least until the tension builds up and the whole system randomizes itself. But that’s within the Sea, and we’re a good half a mile from the border. Sheyann, you’re older than I; have you ever heard of someone reaching out of the Sea to suck someone in like this?”

The Elder shook her head, patting Maureen’s leg one last time and then taking a step north, toward the endless horizon, where the last red light of sunset was fading. “Centaurs are not ambitious warlocks; I doubt any would think to try such a thing. I do feel it, now that I focus…but it’s strange. It’s not what I… Give me a moment, please. I must concentrate.”

She folded her legs under herself right where she stood, sinking smoothly down to kneel and consequently all but vanishing into the tallgrass. Gabriel gently nudged Whisper away, giving the Elder a respectful space in which to work.

Haunui glanced down at her, then up again at the horizon. “I will help if I can, but I do not understand this land. Nor the depth of your craft.”

“There are few elemental spirits anywhere on this continent that don’t know Sheyann,” Tellwyrn said briskly, “and few people anywhere who are more skilled at what they do. If she wants to try something, we’ll probably get the best results by leaving her to it.”

“She’s out there,” Maureen whimpered.

“And we will find her,” Tellwyrn said firmly. “Sheyann is, as usual, right. Right now the best thing you can do is take care of yourself, Maureen. Try to find some calm.”

“Should…I go back for some of the others?” Gabriel asked uncertainly. “I mean, since Whisper and I have the speed, here.”

“To retrace the Sleeper’s steps, we need infernomancy and shamanism,” Tellwyrn replied. “That’s who I brought along, Arquin—and before you suggest it, Embras Mogul is already more involved in this whole business than I like.”

“Wasn’t gonna,” he muttered.

“Mr. Wrynst,” Tellwyrn said, turning to the dwarf, “I realize this is out of your element, but can you detect anything else?”

Wrynst stroked his chin ruminatively. He was clean-shaven and altogether looked the part of the modern dwarf; his formal robes were well-tailored, suggesting a business suit in their style and cut to accentuate rather than conceal the blocky shape of his physique.

“Not without more to go on,” he said at last. “As I said, the traces are fading rapidly, even while we stand here. The problem is that there wasn’t actually a rift opened. I can track a shadow-jump or dimensional transfer if I can get at it, but this accursed mirroring effect obscures the traces I’d need to read. The real action happened in Hell, not here. If either of our shaman can coax the Sea to oblige us, that’ll be another matter. Rifts are even easier to follow in the context of other nearby rifts, so long as you’ve a head for the math—and have the right tools. I have both, of course! The Golden Sea makes the ultimate sextant in that regard; most theorize there is a massive dimensional nexus of some kind at its center, which both causes the instability in the region and is the reason the Sea doesn’t let anybody get at its heart. But, again, that’s little help because the shifting we’re trying to follow is merely a reflection of something that happened in another universe, and I’ve neither the senses nor the instruments to perceive something like that in the necessary detail.”

“The winds are angry,” Haunui repeated morosely. “I expect no help from them.”

“Thanks for that,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh.

“The Sea will help us,” Sheyann said suddenly, opening her eyes and standing. “I must remain here, to keep communication open. The mind of the Sea is normally unreadable…but it seems Iris reached it.”

“She said please,” Maureen whispered. “Over and over. I didn’t know who she was begging…”

“The child will be a truly remarkable witch, in the fullness of time,” Sheyann said gravely, “provided we are able to rescue her. She touched the Sea itself, its consciousness, something no shaman I have ever known has been able to do.”

“Iris has gifts apart from her craft,” Tellwyrn said tersely. “I don’t invite just any teenage witch to my school. You have an expression that says there’s a downside, Sheyann.”

“The consciousness of the Golden Sea is…rather like a god, in some respects,” Sheyann explained, nodding. “It is a consciousness, but not like ours. In the way it is approached, it’s like a machine, responding predictably to a few narrow stimuli and ignoring most others. While gods will sometimes make their thoughts known, however, the Sea never has that I know of. Iris left traces that I can follow. However…”

“Here it comes,” Tellwyrn muttered.

Sheyann gave her an irritated look without pausing. “This is delicate. I sense compliance toward Iris, as well as resentment at the Sleeper. I don’t understand what Iris did, exactly, and cannot reproduce it; the Sea will not comply with me. To do this, I will have to skirt the line between cajoling the Sea’s distant mind in the wake of Iris’s touch, and coercing it to cooperate, as the centaurs do. One false step will backfire catastrophically.”

Tellwyrn drew in a breath, and let it out in a short sigh. “I know your skill, Sheyann. If anyone can do it…”

“I would not suggest such a risk if I didn’t think I could,” the Elder replied gravely. “That is not the problem. I must maintain a reflection, in Mr. Wrynst’s words, of what was done before.”

“What’s that mean?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“The Sleeper’s passage was separate, and invisible to me,” Sheyann said. “I can retrace the grip that seized Iris and Maureen. But two were taken, and only two can follow.”

“Sometimes,” Tellwyrn growled, “I honestly hate magic.”


Immediately upon exiting the alley, they put together the best formation they could. Shook and Kheshiri stepped to one side of the opening, the Jackal and Vannae to the other, while Joe paced out in the center, wands in hand. Behind him, Danny emerged, and the three soldiers swiftly clustered around him as soon as they had space to do so, brandishing staves at the empty street.

“Fuckin’ creepy,” Shook muttered. “Haven’t even heard any alarm bells…”

They all whirled to face the shadows which swelled in the center of the street ahead. The darkness receded, revealing three figures in gray robes which obscured their faces.

“Grandiose,” Kheshiri said skeptically. “You only needed one caster to shadow-jump. You’re sacrificing strategic value for—”

“We are the rising tide,” a gravely voice interrupted her.

“Which one’s talking?” Finchley whispered.

“I will bet you a year’s pay it’s the one in the middle,” Rook muttered back.

The Jackal barked a laugh. “No bet.”

“We will sweep away the unworthy,” the voice continued, and finally the figure in the middle stepped forward to raise his arms skyward. “The very stones are worn away by the tide!”

“Fascinating,” said Danny, craning his neck to peer over Moriarty’s shoulder. “Excuse me, but what god are you with? I don’t recognize that rhetoric.”

“You cannot stop the—”

The cultist’s proclamation was cut short by a lightning bolt. It was an imperfect shot, coming at an awkward angle; the electric discharge struck the figure to his left indirectly, arcing to graze him. He toppled backward to the street with a squeal, while his compatriot fell silently, robe smoking. The other cultist jumped backward, and vanished in an abrupt swell of shadow.

The rest of them had whirled to face the direction from which the shot had come, with the exception of the Jackal, who flung his arms wide in a gesture of frustration.

“Oh, come on! I was gonna murder that guy! Goddammit, I never get to kill anybody anymore…”

Sweet hopped down from the second-floor fire escape, landing in a deep crouch, then straightened, still aiming a wand.

“Still alive?” he said to the fallen cult leader, who was emitting shrill moans of pain. “Splendid, I have some friends who’re looking forward to kicking your ass in meticulous detail. Flora! Fauna! Why do I not hear—ah, there we go.”

A bell began tolling not far away, followed by another, and then a third more distantly, the city’s chain of alarm bells finally coming to life to signal the emergency.

“Sorry, boss!” shouted a feminine voice from the roofs above the street. “We’re not miracle workers, you know!”

“Flesh and blood can only move so fast,” another added.

“Yeah, yeah,” the thief muttered, sweeping his gaze across the group. “Joe, you picked a perfect time to show up. Everybody all right?”

“Quite well, thank you,” Danny said pleasantly.

“Well indeed,” the Jackal said, grinning. “The man himself! It’s been a while.”

“It’s gonna go much worse for you than the last time if you attempt any of the bullshit you’re contemplating,” Sweet said curtly, striding over to the fallen cultists. He kicked the leader, eliciting another cry of pain. “You. I don’t know who you fuckers are, but you are going to explain, and then have things explained to you. You do not do this horseshit in my city. By the time I finish—”

He jumped back at the resurgent rise of shadows. Six more robed figures had appeared on either side of the street from the cluster of people present, arranged in a pair of matching triangles.

“Summoning formations!” Joe barked, snapping his wands up. He dropped the three on their right with a round of blindingly fast shots.

Shadow-jumping was an extremely rapid process, though, and by the time he’d turned to the other cluster, they had done their work. The shadows which swelled up obscured that entire half of the street momentarily. When they receded, the three cultists had vanished with them. What remained behind was at least twelve feet tall.

“Oh, by the way,” the Jackal said helpfully. “Undead.”

It was proportioned like a centaur, with a humanoid torso rising from a four-legged base, and made from bones. Not that it was a skeleton; it had been built from haphazardly-collected bones forming a lopsided structure, held together with bolted lengths of iron and pulsating greenish strands of tissue rather like misplaced ligaments. Atop its torso was a single, normal-sized human skull. If not for the overall horror of the thing, its tiny head might have looked comical.

The accompanying smell was truly unspeakable.

Rook squeaked, Finchley retched, and Moriarty shot it. He actually hit it, too, the blast of lightning sending charred bone fragments flying and causing electricity to crackle visibly along the iron pieces lining its structure. The only tangible result of this was to catch the construct’s attention. It turned far more smoothly than such an awkward-looking thing had any right to, facing them directly.

Joe dispatched a rapid series of shots, burning hole after hole through the thing’s tiny head until the skull finally dissolved completely in broken fragments.

This accomplished nothing. The construct ignored him entirely, charging at the group with the speed of an angry bull.

The three soldiers shoved Danny back into the alley, leaving the rest of the group to dive out of the way. It crashed against the side of the building with an awful clatter, breaking chunks of masonry and sending large pieces of bone and iron to the sidewalk.

“Look how fragile it is!” Kheshiri shouted from above. “We can wear it down!”

Joe, Sweet, and the elves had gotten out of the way, Vannae moving far more deftly than his previous show of weakness had suggested he could. Shook was slower, and got accidentally kicked in the monstrosity’s charge and sent skidding across the pavement. Kheshiri dived to the ground, landing over him with her wings protectively spread.

Lightning blasted out of the alley’s mouth; with the construct pressed against the opening, there was no way they could miss, and bolts of energy ripped pieces of it loose. They broke off firing as the thing adjusted itself to reach into the alley with one enormous arm. It was thankfully too big to fit inside, but it had a long enough reach that they were forced to retreat to avoid being grabbed.

Sweet and Joe fled to the opposite side of the street, where the thief let fly with indiscriminate shots from his wand, raking more and more pieces off the monster, while the Kid surgically shot out metal joints one at a time. After just a few seconds of this, the monster sagged slightly to one side, beginning to lose some of its structural integrity. It stumbled further when the Jackal darted up and slammed a long blade into the knee of one of its back legs, wrenching it loose and causing it to slump sideways, that leg disabled.

Moving less adroitly now, the construct shifted to face the rest of them, just in time to take another barrage of lightning out of the alley to its central mass.

“Hold your fire!” Kheshiri shouted. The succubus dived straight down from the sky, striking the monster’s shoulder with both feet and all her weight, then bouncing off and gliding away. The impact knocked its arm loose entirely, leaving it with just the one reaching into the alley.

“Shit!” Shook yelped from up the street. “Shit shit!”

They turned, barely catching the end of another swell of shadows from that direction as the cultists jumped back out, leaving behind a second construct built along the same lines as the first.

“What?” Sweet protested. “How? Where were they keeping them?”

“With multiple shadow-jumpers, coulda been in Sheng-la for all the difference it makes,” Joe said grimly, swiveling and unleashing a barrage of wandfire at the thing as it came barreling up the street at them. “Gotta catch the—look out!”

They had to dive out of the way again, back toward the first monster, which was still trying to move, but able to do little but thrash now, all of its limbs having been disabled by the various adventurers. The new arrival slammed against the apartment building opposite, shattering windows and demolishing a set of decorative eaves; Joe and Sweet barely got out of its way in time to avoid being crushed.

A figure swathed in black plummeted from the roof above, cloak billowing behind her.

“Flora, no!” Sweet shouted.

“Flora, yes,” the elf snapped from right next to him, grabbing his arm and tugging him away. “You let the heavy-hitters deal with this crap.” Fauna planted herself between him and the second monster, brandishing long knives in both hands.

“Wait a sec,” Sweet protested, though he didn’t struggle against her tugging. “If you’re—who is that? Who else wears a cloak?!”

The black figure whirled and swarmed across the construct’s massive body like a temporally accelerated monkey, moving with speed and deftness that even an elf could not match—not to mention strength. Striking with hands and feet, it swiftly and precisely knocked loose strategic pieces of iron while clambering over the monster and evading its grasp. In barely ten seconds, it accomplished what a gaggle of armed fighters hadn’t managed to do to the first construct, which was still feebly wriggling, now lying across the street itself after the last barrage of staff fire had knocked it away from the alley. The new construct, however, collapsed to the pavement in pieces. Something fundamental in its body had clearly been destroyed; it entirely disintegrated, none of its components even attempting to move.

There was a momentary pause in which the only sound was the ongoing alarm bells, followed by another massive swell of shadows out of nowhere, immediately pierced by three beams from Joe’s wand. The shadow abruptly dissipated, leaving three robed figures lying dead in their wake.

“That is enough a’ that,” Joe growled.

Kicking aside a piece of arm as long as she was tall and lowering her hood, the figure in black turned to face the rest of the street. On the ground and stationary, she was revealed as a pretty young woman with dark hair.

Across the way, Shook, Kheshiri, the Jackal, and Vannae, who had just attacked an undead monstrosity five times their collective size without flinching, shouted in panic and scrambled away toward the nearest open alley.

Face set in a predatory glower, the woman shot after them, fast as a pouncing lion.

“STOP!”

Roughly pushing aside Finchley, who was trying to hold him back, Danny emerged from their hiding place, giving the still-twitching necromantic construct a wide berth, but showing no sign of unease. On the contrary, his voice and bearing radiated a command which, surprisingly, stopped everyone in their tracks. The woman skidded to a halt, whirling to stare at him, and the four she’d been pursuing hesitated in spite of themselves.

“We’ve won here,” Danny said firmly. “No more. No turning on each other, and no revenge. Let them be, Milanda. I owe them.”

She let out a short breath, then charged at him, cloak flaring behind her.

Moriarty whipped up his staff at her and Danny punched him in the face, and then she was on him, wrapping her arms around him and burying her head against his chest.

Feet came pounding up the street, and Joe whirled to aim wands, which he immediately lowered.

Five soldiers skidded to a halt, weapons raised, staring around incredulously.

“What in the goddamn hell?” demanded the sergeant at the head of the group. “Weapons down! NOW!”

“Coulda used you gentlemen ’bout ten minutes ago,” Joe muttered, holstering his wands.

“Officers,” Sweet said pleasantly, obligingly dropping his wand and raising his hands over his head. “This is…” He paused, glancing around at the dead bodies, the damaged walls, multiple lightning burns, and shattered remnants of two giant constructs of bone, one still trying to get up. “Well! This is probably more or less exactly whatever the hell it looks like.”

 

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12 – 56

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“Oh, you asshole,” Sweet murmured, grinning down at the spectacle below. “Look, he’s looping ’em back now.”

“Before you go giving anybody too much credit,” said Fauna, “he could just be lost.”

“He of all people knows how not to get lost in Tiraas,” Sweet disagreed, proceeding along the edge of the rooftop at a pace which matched the slow amble of Danny and his increasingly twitchy entourage. “Especially since they’re supposed to be heading toward the Palace. Just go uphill. Nope, he’s deliberately leading them in circles, after picking the most switchbacking route through alleys he could find so they don’t immediately notice.”

“I’m a little surprised somebody who lives in the Palace would even know how to do that,” said Flora.

“I was just getting started late in Theasia’s reign, but even then there were persistent rumors about how Sharidan liked to sneak out of the Palace and have little adventures. I dunno what a crown prince would have wanted in a neighborhood like this, but I also wouldn’t assume he doesn’t know his way around the city.”

“That’s actually kind of a good thing, isn’t it?” Fauna mused.

“Yeah,” Flora agreed, nodding. “Better to have a ruler who’s at least been in touch with the people.”

“Course, based on that one’s rep, could’ve just been a lot of being in touch with the pretty people’s butts in bars.”

“Doubtful,” said Sweet. “He likes his women, but he likes them eagerly willing. I’ve never once heard a suggestion the Emperor has so much as pinched a chambermaid. But back to the matter at hand, I still don’t understand what I’m seeing here. Why’s he want to ramble around the city with nobody but those clowns to watch his back? Sharidan is less cautious than either Eleanora or Vex, but this is just bull-goose reckless, and that doesn’t fit his pattern at all…”

All three lifted their heads at the hoarse cawing of a crow. They listened till the pattern completed itself, then Sweet nodded once, and Flora mimicked a starling call in reply.

“Why crows for this job?” Fauna muttered. “Every damn time, I half think it’s gonna be her until the whole code is complete…”

“She wouldn’t announce herself,” Flora said, grinning.

“Because crows are easy to mimic,” Sweet replied, again watching the foursome they were tracking below, “because I let Duster set the ground rules since she’s in charge on the ground this time and she can do a crow, and because apprentices who aren’t given something to bitch and whine about get bored and do stupid things. Everybody wins.”

“You’re a jerk,” Fauna said affectionately, patting him on the back.

A shape swung nimbly up the nearby edge of the roof, moving more like a circus acrobat than someone who should be concentrating on their stealth.

“What’s the word, Bounce?” Sweet asked.

Despite his characteristically ebullient way of moving, the lanky man wore a frown. “The word is trouble, Sweet. Duster’s pulled Rake, Chesty and Grimoire back to keep an eye; we got a big group of Black Wreath forming up.”

Sweet straightened up fully, frowning at him. “Excuse me, a who?”

“So far, least twenty,” Bounce said. “Clearly staging for something. People in those gray robes, being shadow-jumped into an empty apartment one at a time. Your guy an’ his pals are gonna pass not too far from ’em, at this rate.”

“Bullshit,” Sweet said bluntly. “The Wreath has nothing to gain and way too much to lose.”

“Hey, did I say I’d personally analyzed the situation?” Bounce asked irritably. “I see robes, I see shadow-jumping, Duster tells me go warn Sweet the Wreath’s here, my job is done. She figured you’d wanna get a look before they do…whatever.”

“Damn right,” Sweet said, now frowning deeply. “Girls…stay on our target. And remember.” He leveled a stern finger at them. “Whatever else is going on here, eyes are on us, including probably those of Imperial Intelligence. Best. Behavior.”

“Sir, yes, sir!” they chorused, snapping to attention and saluting.

Sweet shook his head. “All right, lead on, Bounce. Double-time.”

“You’re spending too much time at that Church, man,” Bounce complained even as he vaulted over the ledge onto a balcony below. “Starting to talk like an Avenist…”

“Being shadow-jumped, he said,” Flora murmured. “Don’t all the Wreath know shadow-jumping?”

“Remember, most of the Wreath is just dilettantes, they only recruit trusted people for actual missions.”

“You know what I meant.”

“Yeah…they wouldn’t need to be shadow-jumped anywhere, and shadow-jumping means they don’t have to group up before staging an attack.”

“And, of course, any bunch of assholes can put on gray robes. You remember—oh ho, what have we here?”

They both leaped across the next alley, then crouched by the edge of the roof, peering over at the scene below.

“What timing,” Fauna muttered. “Sweet had to take off right before someone he’d definitely wanna see happens along…”


“Why, hello! Fancy meeting you here!”

“Danny,” the youth replied, returning his wave with a quizzical frown. “Fancy meeting you out. Something happened?”

“Ah, yeah, you might say that,” Danny said ruefully. “I’m moving to new accommodations.”

“Are Lakshmi and Sanjay all right?”

“Yes. Safe, unharmed, and…rather annoyed, I’m afraid. It was my fault, and for now, I’ll have to leave it at that; we can have the whole sorry story later. Ah, but forgive me! Joe, this is Andrew, Thomas, and Jacob. Guys, this is Joe.”

“Pleasure,” Moriarty said curtly.

“Did we tell him our first names?” Rook asked, nudging Finchley with an elbow.

“Shh.”

“Wait, your name’s Andrew?”

“Shut up!”

“Is…everything all right?” Joe asked warily.

“We’re in a bit of a hurry,” Moriarty said stiffly. “Your—My—Mr—”

“Danny,” Rook prompted.

Moriarty gritted his teeth. “Is this boy trustworthy?”

Danny gave him an amused look. “More than most people. This is quite fortuitous, though, Joe; I imagine I can guess what would bring you to this neighborhood, but this particular back alley?”

“Wait, back alley?” Finchley demanded. “You said this was a street to—oh, for crap’s sake, you’re leading us in circles, aren’t you.”

“Behave yourself!” Moriarty hissed, turning to glare at him. “A little respect!”

“Yeah, that much ain’t a coincidence,” Joe replied, still wearing a pensive frown. “It’s barely dark an’ the neighborhood is quiet. That’s far enough from normal to make me feel suddenly curious. I was headin’ to drop in on the Sanjakars before they turned in, but instead I’ve been wanderin’ around, havin’ myself a listen.”

“Hear anything good?” Rook asked sardonically.

“Mostly just quiet,” Joe said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t figure. You wouldn’t know anything about this, Danny?”

“Anything about what?” Moriarty demanded in exasperation. “Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean…anything. Does it?”

“Did you notice anything in particular, Joe?” Danny asked, all jocularity gone from his tone now. “I realize you’re an exceptionally gifted young man…”

“I don’t hear like an elf, if that’s what you’re askin’,” Joe said with a wry half-smile. “An’ the movements of groups of people ain’t exactly my strong suit—just the opposite, you might say. But I’ve gotten used to this city enough to notice when there’s not the same activity there oughtta be. So, that’s my answer, an’ I note I’m still waitin’ on yours.”

“He doesn’t have to tell you anything,” Moriarty snapped, stepping in front of Danny.

He was immediately pushed aside—gently, but insistently, but a hand on the shoulder. “Jacob, please,” Danny said calmly, “Joe is a friend. And he’s right; this is an odd situation. Anybody would be curious.”

“More pertinently,” Joe said, “I remember you bein’ on the run from somethin’. Now, it occurs to me that one thing that could quiet a neighborhood is word goin’ around that folk would be better off goin’ inside. Places like this, I know the Thieves’ Guild can clear the streets pretty quick, for example.”

“We should be so lucky,” Danny muttered. “The Guild has no quarrel with… Ah, forgive me, Joe, I’m not trying to put you off. No, I don’t know what’s happening, but…it’s not impossible that it has to do with me.”

“That being the case,” Finchley gritted, “perhaps we should resume moving toward Imperial Square? Without detours this time, perhaps.”

“Mind if I tag along?” Joe asked with deceptive mildness.

“Actually, that would be fantastic, if you don’t mind,” Danny said smoothly. “Andrew’s right—if this is about me, best I remove myself from a residential area where others might be caught up in it. And if not, it’s none of our business and we don’t need to be caught up in it.”

“Good idea,” Rook grunted, gently nudging him from behind. “Forward march, if you please, sir.”

“I’m thinkin’ this might be a good time to break the traditional urban reserve,” Joe said, falling into step beside them as they proceeded up the alley toward the street ahead. “I ain’t troubled any o’ the few people I’ve passed, but next one, I reckon I’ll stop an’ ask what’s up.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Moriarty grumbled.

“It’s not a bad one, Joe,” Danny said. “Trust your instincts.”

“I trust my skills an’ my brain,” Joe replied. “Instinct’ll get you killed.”

“Some nice wands you got there,” Finchley said rather skeptically. “Can you use ’em?”

Joe grinned at him. “I get by.”

They emerged into the street proper, and paused. It wasn’t merely quiet; it was almost deserted. As Joe had said, that was eerily abnormal for a city the size of Tiraas, at this hour. They were now standing on one of the curving avenues which orbited the city’s heart; in the distance in both directions there was the sound of traffic from one of the larger radial streets between Imperial Square and the outer walls, but the arc of this street hid that from view. Nearby, though, it was virtually silent. Doors were closed, windows shuttered, and the only person out was a well-dressed woman gliding up the sidewalk toward them.

“Ma’am,” Moriarty said politely, even as he shifted his grip on his staff.

They made a most peculiar group: three men in nondescript clothes, carrying weapons; one man in a cheap suit; one armed teenager in a clearly expensive suit. If she found any of this odd, however, she made no sign, merely giving Moriarty a polite little smile in reply.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Her bearing and inflection matched her expensive dress and fox-trimmed coat, marking her a woman of wealth, if not aristocracy.

Joe subtly moved one hand near a wand. “Pardon me, miss, but would you happen to know if anything…unusual is goin’ on in this neighborhood?”

At that, she paused, arching one eyebrow superciliously. “Young man, do I look as if I reside in a place like this?”

“With the greatest respect, ma’am, you do not,” he replied, in a carefully polite tone. “As such, it’s a mite peculiar to see a lady of your obvious quality alone, in a place like this, at this hour.”

She glanced quickly at each of them in turn. “Oh, dear. Are you planning to mug or assault me?”

“Of course not!” Moriarty exclaimed.

“Now look, Joe, you went and scared her,” Rook said reproachfully. “Shame on you.”

The woman’s eyes fixed on Danny’s; he regarded her right back, face impassive. Despite her question, she seemed perfectly at ease, and in fact, now smiled coquettishly.

“Boys,” Joe said quietly, “circle up. This ain’t right.”

“Correct as usual, Joseph,” she said, stepping forward again. “In your analysis, not your plan. Keep moving, boys, we need to be out of here.”

“Okay, whoah,” said Rook, frowning and tightening his own grip on his staff. “Just who are you? Friend or foe?”

“Dicey question,” she said with a smile. “Enemy, temporarily on your side. You are about to be attacked; keep in a group around…” Her eyes flicked up and down Danny’s form, and her smile stretched into an outright grin. “…your friend, here. And seriously, keep moving. There’s going to be a big mess; our best bet is to get to a busier street where there’s law enforcement.”

“Who are you?” Joe demanded, drawing a wand.

“If I told you, you’d just shoot me,” she said in exasperation. “And seriously, move! Are you all—”

She broke off, whirling at the sound of running feet. A figure in a gray robe had burst out of a nearby shop door and now dashed toward them, brandishing a knife.

Moriarty and Finchley both fired their staves, mostly by reflex, managing to destroy a street lamp and seriously damage a parked carriage with lightning bolts. The robed figure made it another three yards closer before Joe put a clean beam of light through his head.

“That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,” the woman said, deadpan. “Electricity arcs toward conductive bodies. How the hell did you miss at that range?”

“Lamp posts are metal,” Moriarty said sullenly.

“Aw, shit—move!” Rook barked, now rudely shoving Danny back into the alley. More people in ash-gray robes suddenly began streaming out of the open door, all charging right toward them and brandishing a collection of knives and clubs. Aside from the pounding of their feet, they moved in eerie silence.

“Not in there!” the woman shouted fruitlessly. “Go toward the—oh, for hell’s sake!”

She followed Rook, rudely shoving past Finchley and Moriarty, who had turned to fire at the oncoming mob. They managed to hit the crowd, at least, but aside from tripping over the bodies, none of their attackers seemed fazed by the fact they were charging into a barrage of electric death. Joe backed up after the woman, leveling much more careful shots.

It was over with shocking suddenness; where there had been a charging mob, there was abruptly just a street littered with smoking corpses. At least a score of them, the nearest of which had almost reached the alley.

“What the fuck,” Finchley demanded in a tremulous voice. “The Black Wreath?”

“This is not the Wreath,” the woman said firmly. “The Wreath is competent and quiet. They make convenient villains, though; lots of people like to frame them, especially since it’s as easy as throwing on a cheap robe before committing crimes. I don’t know who these clowns are, but they’re hopped up on some kind of berserker drug, if the one I knifed earlier is any indication. Look, boys, that light show will draw official attention fast, which means whoever planned this has got something bigger to play. I don’t know who can pull an army out of their butt like this, in Tiraas no less, but they wouldn’t do so just to waste it. We’ve gotta get your boy into the arms of Imperial protection now.”

“Or,” said Rook, still with a protective hand on Danny’s shoulder, “we sit tight and wait for that Imperial protection to show.”

“Use your head,” she snapped. “Our enemy knows the situation just as well. We were herded in here. This is where the real blow will fall, and it will fall quickly before the soldiers arrive, so will you fucking move already?!”

“She’s right,” Joe said tersely, “we gotta get movin’, back up the street toward Imperial Square. And while we are movin’, you can explain just who the hell you are, an’ how you know me.”

“Oh, we’ve heard a lot about one another’s exploits,” she said with a broad grin, and winked at him. “Now come along, boys, before—”

“Too late,” said Finchley, backing up into the alley.

“More,” Moriarty reported, following suit. “…lots more. Oh, hell. The whole street—”

“Gods fucking damn it,” the well-dressed lady hissed incongruously. “And we continue to be herded! This is what I get for working with groups. Well, go if you’re going! Too risky to fight our way out through a crowd, head back the other way.”

Joe pushed ahead of them, leading the way back up the alley, which kinked and curved in several places to accommodate the neighborhood’s idiosyncratic architecture. Rook stayed behind him, with the other two men and their new companion bringing up the rear.

“Somebody had better start explaining to me just what the hell is going on,” Rook growled as they scampered back toward the next nearby street.

“I have to say, this is not what I expected,” Danny remarked. “Your pardon, madam, but I don’t believe we caught your name?”

“She said Joe would shoot her if she told it,” said Finchley. “I take it you two have met?”

“Oh, not in person,” she said with a throaty little chuckle. “We’re aware of each other, though. Mutual friends. You know how it is.”

“Sadly, that doesn’t narrow it down much,” Joe grumbled. “I can’t think of anybody I’d wanna shoot on sight, ‘cept—”

Suddenly, he skidded to a halt, whirling, and leveled a wand at her face.

“Whoah!” Rook exclaimed. “Being chased, here, I don’t think we have time for this!”

“Aw, he guessed it. Truce,” she said, raising her hands. “All right?”

“Your word ain’t worth a thing,” Joe said coldly.

“That, bucko, is for damn sure,” she said with a smirk. “However, I am here on business, not pleasure. Today’s business is to get your buddy there back safely home.”

“Are you alone?” he demanded.

“Course not, you think the big boss would send me out unsupervised? My team’s nearby, trying to contain this. The Thieves’ Guild outsmarted themselves, as usual; clearing people away from the streets kept most of the resident rabble safe, but it’s also cut way down on official response time. Gods only know how long it’ll take somebody to run for the Imps, because the Eserites sure as hell aren’t going to.”

“The Guild is here?” Danny asked.

“Uh, someone is coming up this alley,” Finchley said nervously.

“I’ve got my boys fully occupied trying to prevent us from being flanked,” she continued. “Shoot me, and at least one of them is going to assume the truce is dropped. So, if you don’t actually care about your friend here getting home alive and don’t mind the thought of Jack and Jerry springing out at you from the shadows, I guess, knock yourself out, kid.”

Joe’s eyes cut momentarily to Danny. “If we get outta this alive, I’m gonna insist on findin’ out why you’re so damn important, Danny.”

“Oh, that is just priceless,” she breathed. “You don’t know? If this whole thing wasn’t just a complete clusterfuck I’d be loving the hell out of this…”

“Why are we not moving?” Finchley demanded.

“Fair point,” Joe snapped. “New formation, though. She goes in front, an’ the second I give the word, or you think it’s appropriate, or you get so much as a hunch, blast her.”

“A gal could take this personally,” the lady said with clear amusement.

“I don’t overmuch care how you take it,” Joe replied flatly, keeping his wand trained on her. “Move, please, an’ no funny stuff, Kheshiri.”

 

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12 – 36

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“All right, I believe you.” Danny threw his cards down on the kitchen table, his face wearing a peculiar mixture of disgust and admiration. “You really can make a living playing poker.”

“Was that a general ‘you,’ or a specific ‘you?’” Lakshmi asked with a sly grin. “Because he can, obviously. Me, possibly. You? Clearly not.”

“I think I was supposed to take offense at that,” Danny confided to Joe, “but it’s hard in the face of such irrefutable evidence that she’s right.”

“I salute your self-awareness,” Joe said solemnly, gathering up the cards and beginning to shuffle the deck with blindingly deft movements of his fingers. “Far too many folk take irrefutable evidence as some kinda challenge.”

“I’ve noticed that, too,” Danny agreed, picking up his teacup. He glanced into it, then at the pot.

“Also empty,” Lakshmi announced, pushing back her chair and picking up the teapot. “I’ll brew us another. Gods know I’ve no shortage of bloody tea. It’s never too early for the hard stuff in this house, but I always feel like some kinda lush, drinking with a teetotaler at the table.”

“Then my work here is done,” Joe announced still making the cards dance.

“Why don’t you let me do that?” Danny suggested, rising and reaching as if to take the teapot from her. “I know where everything is.”

Lakshmi pulled it away, raising an eyebrow at him. “What, and have the guest serve himself in my home? You trying to make me look bad?”

“I don’t have the talent or the energy to pull that off,” he said gallantly. “It’s just that you seem incongruous, to me, serving food. I picture you more with a saber in hand than a kettle.”

“Raiding, pillaging, generally buckling my swash?” she said dryly. “You don’t have the faintest idea what it is I do, huh?”

“Oh, let me have a few romantic illusions,” he said with a roguish grin. “You fit in them so well.”

Lakshmi rolled her eyes, stepping past him toward the sink.

Joe had paused in his shuffling to glance back and forth between them, then finally cleared his throat and dropped his eyes to the deck, resuming. For a few moments, the only sounds in the kitchen were the running of water into the pot and the whisper of his cards. Sanjay was off at school at this hour (theoretically); with the conversation halted, the room suddenly seemed smaller.

“I know you explained about the numbers,” Danny said in a thoughtful tone, before the silence could stretch enough to become really awkward. “I can take your word for that, though I won’t claim to understand it. There’s more to the game, though, isn’t there?”

“How do you mean?” Joe asked, seemingly grateful for the restoration of talk.

“Well, poker is as much about the players as about the cards, right?” Danny slid back into his seat, smiling disarmingly. “At least, that’s what I’ve always heard. I haven’t played since I wasn’t much older than you, and never seriously—as you could probably tell—but it’s sort of famous in song and story for that.”

“Yeah, you’ve got a point there,” Joe agreed, nodding. “Bein’ able to see the probabilities like I do makes a big difference, but they only go so far. You gotta read the other people at the table, too. Fact is, most people don’t understand probabilities, so their bets often aren’t rational. Playin’ rationally against ’em ain’t a winnin’ strategy, in most cases.”

Danny leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and studying Joe thoughtfully. The expression was amiable, though, not prying. “I guess you’ve had plenty of opportunity to develop that skill as well, then. You’re all too right; people aren’t rational, about just about anything. In some ways, human behavior is the opposite of math.”

“You’re…more right than you may realize,” Joe said slowly, frowning at his cards now. “But readin’ human behavior… That’s math, again. Way I do it, anyhow.”

“Oh?” Danny cocked his head to the side. “I guess everyone’s methods differ. I’ve had to make a practice of reading people, too, but for me it’s a more intuitive thing.”

“For you, an’ for most people,” Joe agreed, nodding. He finally lifted his eyes to study Danny right back. “My knowledge o’ most people’s strictly secondhand, of course…”

“That’s true for everyone, Joe,” Lakshmi said, setting the kettle on the stove and returning to the table.

“I meant my experience is a bit different,” Joe said with a grimace. “Danny’s right: readin’ people is an intuitive thing, for most folk. It ain’t a skill that comes naturally to me, at all. I guess…there’s a trade-off for bein’ able to do what I do. When I was little, I could do algebra before I could talk. Course, I didn’t talk till I was about seven…”

Lakshmi settled slowly into a chair, now watching Joe intently. Danny just nodded, a gesture of encouragement.

“It was people stuff,” Joe said after a short pause, shrugging. “People are charmed up from birth with certain basic things, the skills we need to be social creatures. You know, speech, reading facial expressions.”

“You…couldn’t read expressions?” Danny asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Not at first. Not naturally.” Joe finally stopped his shuffling and looked up at them with a reminiscent smile. “Folks ’round town reckoned I was just simple-minded. My pa, though, an’ Miss Ames—she was the schoolmarm—they stood by me. They were good folks, both, but to an extent it was just logic. A boy of nine who barely talks but can do logarithms clearly ain’t wrong. A mite peculiar, is all.

“So my pa worked it all out for me. The whole time I was a tyke, he was writin’ to learned folk around the Empire. Those that bothered to answer didn’t have anything to tell ‘im. Finally he got desperate an’ went to visit the elves.”

“Sarasio is right next to a grove, isn’t it?” Danny inquired. “That seems like it would be easier than writing to universities and such.”

Joe chuckled. “You haven’t had a lot of commerce with elves, have you, Danny?”

“A bit, here and there,” Danny said with a shrug and a disarming smile. “I think very few people have a lot of commerce with elves.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly. Elves come to you, if there’s to be any coming; you go into a grove uninvited an’ the likeliest reaction is a polite but firm ‘go away.’ Keep comin’ in, an’ you’re like to have the point made with arrows. The elves were friendly-like with a few folks around town, but in general people knew not to go into the woods unless invited. My pa did, though. I guess whatever he said to the scouts made an impression, cos after three attempts they went and fetched a shaman for him to talk to, ‘stead of shootin’ him.

“Anyhow, apparently whatever my deal is, the elves knew about it. It’s somethin’ that happens from time to time in most races, it turns out. The shaman didn’t have any fixes for my pa; the way elves do it is let the kid grow up natural, however it works best for them. By the time they’re a hundred or so, they usually work it out so they can interact normal enough with other folk, an’ the tribe’s usually pretty patient with ’em.”

“Wow,” Lakshmi said wryly. “I guess if you live forever, you’ve got no reason to be in a hurry.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah. The shaman at least set Pa on the right path, though. The dwarves have some o’ the same kinda knowledge, an’ they actually do active research, lookin’ for treatments an’ whatnot.”

“The Five Kingdoms are renowned for their universities,” Danny agreed, nodding.

“Yep. Pa fired off another round o’ letters, an’ the dwarves were more responsive than the Imperials, funny enough. Took a little back an’ forth, but he finally got in touch with somebody who was studyin’ this particular thing, Professor Vyrnsdottir at Svenheim Polytheoric. She gave Pa the best advice she could, which is where things started lookin’ up for me.

“Pa ordered textbooks, next. Anatomy, an’ especially facial muscles. An’ then he made a game of it with me. We got a mirror, an’ the books, an’ made faces, worked out what every emotion did, how it made the muscles in the face respond. Then started workin’ on body language in general. As I started gettin’ a handle on one thing, we’d branch out to somethin’ else I was havin’ trouble with. Metaphoric speech, for example; we prairie folk love our similies, an’ I never could make heads or tails of ’em as a kid.” He grinned. “But pa got me thinkin’ of it like scaled-up language. Like how the letter ‘e’ is a symbol for a sound, an’ how the word ‘tree’ is a symbol for the thing itself. All language is parallel, you just gotta look for the correspondence. It comes pretty natural to most folk; I have to stop an’ think on it some, but thanks to Pa an’ the Professor, I manage just fine these days. One o’ her last letters said I must be a mild sort of case, to pick it up so fast; most o’ those she worked with took a lot longer to sort it out. Course, she also said the way I deal with numbers ain’t typical, either, so that was probably a factor. Might even be a separate condition.”

“That’s quite ingenious,” Danny marveled. “He worked out how to reduce human interaction to…equations. In terms a child would understand. Incredible!”

“Took the intuitive part out of it,” Joe agreed, nodding again, “made it math, an’ I finally started to figure it all out. He got Miss Ames in on it, an’ by the time I was eleven I could read expressions almost as well as anybody. I reckon I do just fine now. It’s habit, by this point, second nature. Differently, though. There’s things I miss, and then again, things I catch that others don’t seem to notice. I’m analyzing faces intellectually where most people sorta feel what an expression means. It’s different, but it works. At the poker table in particular, it becomes just an extension of the game.”

“Your father was a scholar himself?” Danny asked quietly.

Joe stared at the table. “A rancher. We raised cows.”

“He sounds like a truly remarkable man.”

“He truly was,” Joe said softly. “Him an’ Miss Ames both. Neither one of ’em survived the troubles in Sarasio.”

“Aw, Joe,” Lakshmi whispered.

Joe cleared his throat, and shook himself as if brushing off the memories. “Ah, well, that’s all history. With regard to more recent events, Danny, an’ speakin’ of Svenheim… I know your business here’s a secret an’ all—”

“One he’s in my house to protect, Joseph Jenkins,” Lakshmi said firmly. “Don’t you go digging, boy. You’re getting bad habits from Sanjay.”

Joe grinned at her. “I promise to pry with the utmost discretion, Shmi. Honesty I ain’t interested in your personal affairs, Danny, but in general terms, would whatever you’re hidin’ out from have to do with dwarves?”

“Dwarves?” Danny raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I suppose I ought to clam up totally, but frankly… No. I have no dwarf issues, unless something very surprising has happened at home while I’ve been away. Why do you ask? To my knowledge, hardy anyone has trouble with dwarves. They are remarkably inoffensive people as a rule.”

“Some friends an’ I were involved in a dust-up outside the city last week,” Joe said, now frowning. “With dwarves. Apparently at least some were actual agents of Svenheim. Imperial Intelligence came an’ put a stop to it, then warned us all to keep our mouths shut…”

“And yet, here you are, chattering about it with a total stranger,” Lakshmi said in exasperation.

“Now, I’ll allow Sharidan Tirasian’s government seems more beneficent than most,” Joe drawled, “but it’s still a government, an’ I’ve had brushes with it I didn’t like. A hungry bear in the woods an’ a trained circus bear with a silk ribbon ’round its neck will both maul you just as dead, in the wrong circumstances. A bear’s a bear, an’ a king’s a king.”

“You really have mastered those metaphors,” Danny said, grinning.

“And it occurs to me not for the first time that you’re half-Eserite in mindset already,” Lakshmi added. “You ever think about apprenticing with the Guild?”

“Nope,” Joe said immediately. “I’m on pretty good terms with Bishop Darling; from that I’ve learned pretty much what I need to, I think.”

“Don’t judge us all by him,” she muttered darkly.

Danny shook his head. “That guy really gets around.”

“Yes,” Lakshmi agreed. “That is what he does exactly.”

“Point being,” Joe continued, “I respect the Empire up to a point, but I am not in a hurry to bow an’ scrape when it comes barkin’ orders at me. For example, when instructed to keep my mouth shut about the Silver Throne’s secrets at the expense of bein’ left in the dark about who might be shootin’ at me next, I consider that a reason to make my inquiries discreetly, not suspend them.”

“Attaboy,” Lakshmi said with a grin.

Danny shrugged. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t help you there, Joe. At this point I’m not even sure when I’ll be heading home, but when I do I can put out a few feelers. As it stands, though, I find the idea of Svenheim agitating in Tiraas like that rather hard to credit. It seems…out of character.”

“That is pretty much my assessment,” Joe replied, “an’ exactly the reason for my concern. It’s when people start actin’ out of character that you gotta start watchin’ ’em more closely.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Danny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Intuitively or logically, one can always develop a sense of another person. It’s when they start proving your sense wrong that you frequently wind up in trouble.”

Lakshmi pursed her lips, studying him as if she’d never seen him before, which he affected not to notice. Behind them, the teapot began to whistle.


“So for all these years, those three dryads have lived comfortably alone, with only you to look after them. They have their very own tiny world, and seem content to stay here—which I suspect has a lot to do with having a suave Avatar who knows how to push their runes. Which makes it all the more fascinating that I suddenly have a dryad wandering the halls of the facility above, unsupervised.”

“Hawthorn has always been the most assertive of the three,” Avatar 01 said blandly, wearing his customary smile. He hovered in the display attached to the floating teleporter door; Milanda took a step to remain at hand as the planetoid slowly rotated out from under her. “They are none of them terribly inquisitive by human standards, likely a deliberate design choice on Naiya’s part to keep them separate from sapient societies. Her alone, however, I have several times had to dissuade from leaving this chamber. The teleporter, as you have observed, is not programmed to block their passage as it is Walker’s.”

“Uh huh,” she said dryly. “And you have no idea why this would suddenly be?”

“In this case,” the Avatar replied, still with his neutrally pleasant expression, “her interest was piqued by your recent comings and goings. Understandably, I’m sure. Things here have been rather routine since Theasia’s day. The Nexus, fortunately, is equipped with the most advanced fabricators available, able to produce the stock for their hunting, as well as replenish the flora. The girls customarily do not damage plants, but some of their games can become rather…rough.”

Milanda blinked, momentarily forgetting what she’d been about to say. “Wait, your machines can make plants and animals?!”

“Only clones,” he said, as if this were of no significance. “Building an actual ecosystem is a rather more complex task—the life forms around you are mostly descended from specimens imported by the Empire. But yes, it suffices for necessary ecological spot repair, so to speak. I project that at the current rate of incident and replenishment, it will be roughly two hundred years before inbreeding becomes problematic among the local biosphere.”

“The more I learn,” she marveled, “the more I wonder what life must be like on this Earth by now…”

“This particular technology was not available on Earth, or to the Infinite Order for some time after their arrival here. It requires Naiya’s transcension field to operate. I am, of course, unable to say what conditions exist on that or any other world at present. Even my data regarding the majority of this one is severely limited by my present situation.”

“I see. How fascinating. And how also fascinating that even with the great skill at distraction you just demonstrated, you weren’t able to persuade Hawthorn to stay out of the teleporter.”

She stepped again to keep pace with him, and for once, the Avatar was silent. Milanda generally found his expression harder to read even than the conniving courtiers with whom she was accustomed to contending; now, though, he looked so overtly thoughtful that he had to have been doing it deliberately.

“Truthfully, Milanda, in this instance, I gently suggested that it might be an appropriate time for her to explore.”

“I see,” she said without surprise. The situation unfolding in the security hub when she had left had seemed too important to interrupt with matters of petty technicality, but Milanda had given it thought during her very short trip here. It had not been too short to come to a conclusion which had just been confirmed. “And you chose to break your decades-long policy right when I’m in the middle of dealing with a crisis, not to mention trying to cope with the revelations I can’t seem to stop tripping over down here. A lady could take that amiss, Avatar.”

“I assure you, Milanda, my intentions are not to do you or your government any harm. If I judged Hawthorn’s presence at large in the facility a danger, I would of course have discouraged her again. She is not unintelligent, but she and her sisters are distractable and lack social sophistication; you are correct that it would not have been difficult.”

“So you’re saying this is part of your attempt to help?” she said skeptically.

“Perhaps not directly, but in the long run, I believe the expanded possibilities this raises will serve you well.”

“Let me explain a bit about my position,” she said flatly. “I am an Imperial courtier—a politician, if not an actual government functionary. I am necessarily somewhat accustomed to being jerked around and fed meaningless flowery doublespeak. However, I’ve just learned that the last time this happened, it involved someone knowingly sending me into a nest of dryads without warning me. So if I seem less than patient with it just now, know that it isn’t personal.”

“Understood,” he replied politely. “In the same spirit, allow me to clarify my own position. I do not serve your government, either by compulsion or choice. My presence and activities here are in pursuit of the final directive given to me by my maker, Tarthriss, before this facility’s disconnection from all others: to work toward the betterment of humanity on this world. All of humanity, meaning all sapient life here, which is descended from human stock. I chose to cooperate with Theasia’s agenda because I saw utility in it; I have aided Sharidan more enthusiastically because I consider him and his government to be even more benign. However, I have a very long perspective relative to humans, and I understand the essential nature of societies. Because I consider the current administration of the Tiraan Empire by and large advantageous to humanity does not mean I suffer any illusions that every subsequent one will be. Eventually, one will come which I will find myself obliged to thwart if possible.”

“By,” she said softly, “for instance, neutralizing the Hands of the Emperor.”

“Separated as I am from the facility’s systems,” he said diplomatically, “I am not in a position to do so, for the same reason I cannot more directly assist you in repairing what has gone wrong with that transcension network.”

Milanda did not bother to point out his dissembling. He had been physically pulled from the facility’s systems and re-installed down here; it could be done in reverse, especially since he had three all-but-invincible individuals here who by this point who undoubtedly saw him as family.

And, she suddenly realized, there was now a fourth sister at large in the facility above. One who knew how to use the computers. Who was now forming a relationship with one of the dryads. For just a moment, she regretted helping that develop. Just a moment, though. Politics and strategy were all very well, but she wasn’t and refused to become heartless.

Milanda fancied herself quite good at masking her own expression, but the Avatar seemed to see something in her face which merited further explanation.

“I have run several simulations since your last visit, and while I will need more data directly from the systems above to make a definitive judgment, I consider it very probable that we will not be able to repair or replace the Hand system with only the resources we currently have. At the very least, not with those resources in their present configuration. When it was established, the dryads helped, as did I—from the facility’s main system. Removing me from here and replacing me there will interrupt the connection, perhaps fatally. Restoring it would be a very time-consuming process, at best. If your intention is to effect a repair, we will require additional help, Milanda. Someone extremely versed in fae magic, and either able to interact with Walker or to use the computers with her level of familiarity.”

“There is no one alive who meets that description,” she said testily.

“In fact, there are,” he replied with a wry note in his voice, “but I rather think introducing a kitsune to this situation would not simplify it, assuming you could attract one’s attention at all. Walker cannot come here because the security protocols we installed bar her from using teleporters—an even more important provision, if you are actively preparing to use them to access the city above. Beginning to acquaint her with the dryads is a stopgap measure, but I think it will be an important one. They can form a necessary link. We will also, however, require a fae user of great skill.”

She heaved a sigh. “The Empress has been working with an elven shaman… I’ll ask how trusted he is. Time is a factor; there have been no major blow-ups caused by the Hands and since we shut the Church’s operator out they won’t get any worse, but they’re less than stable in their present state.”

“Understood. If I can do anything to assist, you need only ask.”

Milanda nodded. “That was the first thing I wanted to talk to you about. Since I have some time while the computer maps the city and Walker and Hawthorn catch up, there’s another matter. You told me to come back and see about learning to use the additional abilities I gained from this…quasi-Hand thing. Thus far I haven’t noticed anything but strength, coordination, and an improved skill at functioning without sleep.”

He smiled. “The Hands tend to develop somewhat idiosyncratic powers, and you, I suspect, will be an even more unique case. There are some baselines, though, and they require additional intervention to activate. Sufficient time has passed, I believe, for you to stabilize and adapt; it should be safe now to proceed. The timing is somewhat unfortunate, however. This would be easier with Hawthorn present.”

“What do you mean?” she asked warily.

“If you would be good enough to proceed north to the Nexus, I shall demonstrate.”


“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t know any other way to do it!” Apple said in exasperation, after several minutes of increasingly unproductive argument.

“It’s nice to see you again and all, Milanda, but I’m starting to take this personally,” Mimosa added, folding her arms.

“It’s not that at all!” Milanda said hastily. “It’s just… Well, it’s hard to…”

“Girls, I realize this is counter-intuitive for you,” the Avatar said soothingly from a nearby panel, “but we have discussed this, and I know you understand the issue. Milanda is definitely not trying to insult you.”

“I’m really not!” Milanda assured them.

The dryads exchanged a skeptical look, then sighed in unison.

“Yeah, all right, I know,” Apple said. “But you’ve clearly got an emotional aversion, here, so maybe you can understand why having someone put her foot down and insist she doesn’t want to kiss us can hurt our feelings a little.”

“Of course,” Milanda agreed, nodding. “You’re right; I’m sorry. I definitely didn’t want to offend you. I apologize for being thoughtless.”

“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” Mimosa said somewhat grudgingly. “She’s still right, though; we don’t know how else to do this. There’s not any other way. It’s not like the original granting, that the Avatar can change because we wanted to change the end result. You want to unlock your powers—fine. That’s just like what we do with the Hands. And this is how.”

“Besides, it’s just kissing,” Apple added with renewed asperity. “If you don’t wanna make love, I mean, fine, but really. I don’t get why you’re making such a fuss about this.”

“Okay, now, that part I sorta get,” Mimosa said, giving her a sardonic look. “Because somebody went on and on about how passionate and intimate it could be…”

“I was trying to make the prospect more attractive!” Apple exclaimed, throwing her arms up. “Excuse me if she reacted completely backward to what I meant!”

“Oh! Is this an…orientation thing?” Mimosa turned an inquisitive expression on Milanda. “I’ve read that’s a thing. Are you, just, like, specifically un-attracted to women? Because of it helps, we’re really more quintessentially feminine than biologically female.”

“I grew up in Viridill,” Milanda said wryly.

“Yeah, okay,” Mimosa replied, nonplussed. “I don’t know where that is or why it’s relevant…”

“It’s the seat of Avenist culture! It’s practically traditional for girls to… You know what, never mind. It’s not important.”

“Well, you’re the one who brought it up,” the dryad huffed.

“Hey, wait a sec,” Apple interjected, also peering closely at Milanda now. “Is it a monogamy issue? You’re only wanting to have sex with Sharidan? Because I should really let you know, if you hadn’t caught on by now, all three of us have. Y’know, sort of regularly. Almost every time he visits.”

“Yeah, with the Hands it’s just business,” Mimosa added, beaming. “We like Sharidan! A lot.”

“We are…hardly monogamous,” Milanda said wearily. Her life with Sharidan was certainly nothing she had daydreamed about as a child; she was his most frequent lover, at least of late, but had never had any illusions about being his only one. And honestly she had never felt jealous over it. Their arrangement was not for everybody, but it worked. Some women accepted it as the price of luxury and power; Milanda actually felt very satisfied with the peculiar family to which she now belonged. She wasn’t about to try explaining the matter to these two, however. She wasn’t absolutely sure she understood it herself, at least not well enough to put into words.

For that matter…what was she arguing for? There was the principle of the thing—she was being asked to extend a very personal intimacy, if, as Apple argued, a relatively small one. Besides, these were dryads. Everybody who knew anything about anything knew not to get seduced by dryads. Granted, these two were very unlikely to try to harm her, and anyway she had physical protection from them now, but still. What they were suggesting was that she step into the role of the fool who got killed in the first act of a bard’s story.

“All right,” she said, rolling her shoulders. “You’re right—I’m sorry for overreacting, it was just instinctive. This needs to be done, and it’s not so bad.”

“Wow,” Apple said tonelessly. “Way to sweep us off our feet.”

Milanda sighed and rubbed at her face with both hands. “…I’m sorry. I just wasn’t expecting this. Probably not a surprise I’m ruining it…”

“Oh, relax,” Mimosa said in a low purr that made her more apprehensive than interested, slinking forward. “She’s just teasing you. And you, knock it off—don’t make it harder on her. Now, I know you know how to kiss, Milanda.” The dryad drew close, sensually twining her arms around Milanda’s neck; the skilled intimacy of the gesture only heightened her unease. “We will handle the magic. You just…enjoy.”

“Enjoy,” she said, drawing in a breath. “Okay. Right. I can do that.”

Mimosa leaned forward, playfully rubbing the tips of their noses together, before angling her head to bring her lips toward Milanda’s. Slowly… Parting them just faintly, drawing near enough that Milanda could feel her warm breath. As if they were actually lovers, and not play-acting some ridiculous farce.

Oh, for heaven’s sake.

She finally followed the prompt and moved the last inch, pressing her mouth firmly against Mimosa’s, and tentatively placing her hands on the dryad’s waist.

It was over in a few seconds, Mimosa drawing back first. Milanda opened her eyes to find the dryad staring at her from inches away with a profoundly unimpressed expression.

“Okay, perhaps I should clarify, here,” she said. “This is fae magic. It’s all about emotion. For this to work, you need to be in a relaxed state, and feel the sensations, the feelings that come naturally from being in someone’s arms and being kissed. This thing that you’re doing right here? This is not helping.”

“I’m sorry,” Milanda said miserably. “I am new at sex magic! And I wasn’t warned, if I’d had time to prepare…” If she’d had time to prepare, she’d have worked herself into an even greater state of tension. The Avatar had been very wise not to forewarn her, she realized.

Mimosa rolled her eyes. “This hardly qualifies as sex.”

“Okay, take it easy,” Apple said soothingly from behind Milanda. A moment later, she felt hand brushing through her hair, and then the other dryad’s fingertips were resting on her temples. “C’mon, Mimosa, we’ve got methods for this, too. It’d be easier if Hawthorn would come help, but we’ve had to coax some of the Hands. I’m pretty sure I can do the role by myself.”

“My name,” Mimosa said haughtily, “is Tris’sini.”

“Yeah, yeah, less talk, more kissing.”

“Um,” Milanda said uncertainly, trying to turn her head despite the gentle but firm fingers holding it in place. “How does this helfmmr?”

Mimosa pushed in far more aggressively this time, and Milanda actually sighed against her lips in exasperation.

Exasperation, and…

Somehow, awareness and thought fell away. She was peripherally aware of Apple’s hands on her head, and also of Apple’s very presence in a way that seemed strange, but most of her perception was filled by the other dryad, the one in her arms. Mimosa’s hot breath, her soft, questing lips, the firm grip of the arms around her, the dryad’s hand cradling the back of her head. A warm, lithe, powerful body pressing against her own, silky skin and feathery hair under her questing hands, the strength and softness of—

It was very fortunate she had the both of them effectively holding her upright, because when an entirely new set of senses suddenly exploded into being in her mind, Milanda shrieked and collapsed.

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11 – 9

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“Well, this place and others like it,” Joe said in response to Tallie’s last question. He had integrated himself quite smoothly into the group, aided by the byplay which occurred upon his statement that he didn’t drink. Jasmine had taken that opportunity to carefully dance around an “I told you so,” and Joe had slipped into a seat next to her. “It’s more’n a mite different from playin’ in a frontier town like I grew up in.”

“Bet a lot of things are different,” Ross grunted.

“Ain’t that the plain truth,” Joe said fervently. “Out there, ain’t more’n a few card sharps to go around, and they’re spread out across whole provinces. ‘Less one came to town, I never had anybody of my own caliber to play against, so the winnings were smaller but more consistent. Here? No shortage o’ high-rollers to compete with, once I found out where they like to hang. Means I don’t win nearly as much, ‘less I wanna try cheatin’, which is a good way to get yourself blackballed. Still, I do okay. The pots are bigger, an’ I take enough of ’em to pay my bills.”

“I’ll say!” Tallie replied, waggling her eyebrows. “I mean, just look at that suit! You’re so snazzy!”

“Thanks,” he said dryly.

“Is there an actual living in that?” Jasmine asked.

Joe shrugged. “If you’ve got a gift for it, there can be. Wouldn’t mind tryin’ my hand at somethin’ that gave a little more back to society, but it ain’t like I’ve got any better trade. All I know is poker and shootin’.” He frowned, eyes growing distant. “Same goes. There’s money in that if you’re good at it, but… Card sharping maybe ain’t the most honorable pursuit, but I’ll never kill anybody for such a dumb reason as money.”

“Killed a lot of people?” Ross asked after a pregnant pause.

Joe grunted and folded his arms. “One’s far too many.”

“Well, I think that’s just fabulous,” Tallie enthused. “This is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen. To our new friend, the littlest card shark!” She raised her glass in a toast. Joe gave her a flat look which hinted at the progressive decay of his patience.

“Sorry about Tallie,” said Rasha, pouring himself a second glass of rum. “She’s very sweet and a little abrasive. I haven’t decided if that should be ‘and’ or ‘but.’”

“Whose side are you on?” Tallie asked, affronted.

“Right now, I am on rum’s side.” He drained half his glass in one gulp.

“Slow down,” Jasmine suggested. “We have all evening.”

“I’m fine,” Rasha grunted. “This isn’t as strong as the stuff I was raised on.”

“We gotta go up four flights of stairs to leave,” said Ross. “Nobody wants to carry you.”

“I said I’m fine!”

“Rasha knows his business,” Tallie said, reaching across the table to pat his arm.

“So, you guys are with the Guild?” Joe said, glancing around the table at him. His inquisitive look settled on Jasmine, who didn’t meet it.

“Well, we’re just apprenticing at the moment,” Tallie said airily. “But hell yes we’re with them! You are looking at the four greatest future thieves ever to roll out of that casino!”

“There’s a colloquialism about counting unhatched chickens that I think applies here,” Jasmine commented.

“Oh, you, always naysaying.” Tallie flapped a hand at her face and had another drink of her rum. “You’ve gotta have confidence! Say it like you believe it, until you believe it, and then keep on believing it until it’s true! It’s all in setting the right goals—set ’em high enough, and the sky’s the goddamn limit!”

“Maybe there’s a little more to success than setting goals?” Jasmine said, her eyes on Rasha, who was pouring a third glass of rum.

“Jasmine, I like you and all, but you’ve gotta stop being the voice of reason. It cramps my style. Hey, why do we say ‘goddamn,’ anyway? Doesn’t that kind of imply only a single god? Wouldn’t ‘godsdamn’ make more sense?”

“Phonetically awkward and theologically inaccurate,” said Ross. “’Goddamn’ rolls off the tongue. Last consonant of the first word is the same sound as the first consonant of the second, so they chain together easily into a single word. I’ve heard ‘godsdamn,’ but it’s just harder to say.”

“Hm, yeah, you’re right,” Tallie agreed, rolling her mouth as if examining the flavor of the word. “Slower, and kind of awkward.”

“Also,” he continued, idly toying with his half-full glass, “notions like the Universal Church as an actual center of worship don’t date back much further than the Reconstruction. For most people, for most of history, there was only one god, or at least only one that mattered to each person.” He paused, blinked, and frowned; everyone at the table was staring at him. “What?”

“I think that’s the most I’ve ever heard you say at one sitting,” Jasmine explained.

“Oh.” He shrugged. “Stuff like that’s interesting to me. Trained with the Veskers for a while. Might still be there if I wasn’t so interested in stuff like the etymology of cussing.”

“To cussing, dammit!” Rasha said loudly, lifting his own glass.

“TO CUSSING!” Tallie roared, following suit.

“Did…they throw you out?” Jasmine asked hesitantly. “I mean, not to pry. You don’t have to answer.”

“Nah, I don’t mind,” Ross said with a shrug. “There’s room for weirdos with the bards; they don’t really throw you out. But if you’re into stuff they don’t think is appropriate… Well, bards are real good at making you uncomfortable without crossing any lines.”

“Really, they were that upset about your study of cussing?” Tallie asked, grinning broadly.

“Eh.” He shrugged again. “Really didn’t get bad till I talked with my language tutor about my hobby. Historical figures with names that turn real embarrassing in Tanglish.”

“Like who?” Tallie demanded avidly.

“Horsebutt the Enemy, for one,” Jasmine said dryly.

“Nah, Stalweiss honor names don’t really count,” Ross said, straightening up and putting his glass aside. He looked more animated than they’d yet seen him. “That’s just a different culture’s ideas what makes for an impressive portmanteau. Horsebutt, for example, makes perfect sense if you’ve been around horses; you’d know damn well which end of the horse not to mess with.”

Tallie burst out laughing so hard she nearly spilled her rum. Ross carried on despite that.

“It’s mostly orcish heroes, though there’s a few others in other human cultures. But the orcs are where the real gold is at. Like Warlord Buddux, or Slobbernock the Wise. That one’s old enough he might’ve been apocryphal. Modern orcish tends to go for shorter names.”

Tallie, by this point, was laughing so hard she was having trouble staying in her chair; even Joe and Jasmine were grinning in amusement. Ross didn’t go as far, but his expression was more relaxed than usual. He clearly enjoyed the attention.

“Yeah, well, the bards didn’t find it as funny,” he admitted with a shrug. “Bards’re big on respecting culture and language. Wasn’t like they were mean to me, I just… Y’know, didn’t feel I fit in, exactly. So, trying something else, here.”

“To the etymology of cussing!” Tallie crowed, lifting a glass which she didn’t appear to have noticed was now empty.

“And gaining new outlooks,” Jasmine agreed more soberly, nodding at Ross.

“Think it’s funny?” Rasha asked more quietly. “Laughing at people because they’re different?”

“It’s kinda mean,” Ross agreed frankly. “Not arguing that. But these people are long dead. And they didn’t think of themselves as what the names sound like to us. Just phonetic coincidence. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”

“It’s just a bit of fun, Rasha,” Tallie said cheerfully. “Nobody’s being wronged.”

He grunted, topping off his glass and raising it to his lips.

“Hey, are you okay?” Jasmine asked mildly, reaching across the table to slide the jug of rum out of his reach. Rasha either didn’t notice or didn’t react to this, polishing off his fourth glass of ale and thunking it back down onto the table, whereupon he stared accusingly at it.

“I’m s’posed to be,” he said bitterly. “That’s the whole point of all this, right? New place, new life, new…everything.”

“New skills, new friends, new connections,” Tallie agreed, still chipper but now not as exuberant, seeming to have caught some of his mood. “C’mon, Rasha, you’ve been here two days. This stuff takes time to do!”

“What if it doesn’t work?” Rasha asked in a plaintive whisper, clutching his empty glass in both hands and staring into it. “I can’t keep going like… I can’t. I’m here to become somebody who’s… Who doesn’t have to…”

“Take anybody’s crap,” Ross rumbled, nodding. “That’s what Eserion’s about.”

“Don’t care about anybody,” Rasha said, his lip trembling. “I’m sick of my crap.”

“Rasha,” Jasmine said gently, scooting closer to him. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m wrong.” Tears began to slide down his face, his thin shoulders shaking slightly. “I don’t fit, and I feel wrong all the time, like I’m not supposed to even be like this. I’m the wrong…wrong person, and life, and…” He squeezed his eyes shut, scrubbing the back of his sleeve across them.

“Okay, this is the most insensitive thing I’ve ever said, an’ I’ll apologize to him when he sobers up enough to appreciate it,” said Joe, glancing casually around at their surroundings. “But this really ain’t the place to break out cryin’. Some o’ the folk in here are just watchin’ for an excuse to jump on anything they see as weakness.”

The others followed suit, surreptitiously peering at the Den. Its noise and crowd seemed to be working in their favor; nobody appeared to have noticed Rasha’s inebriated breakdown, or to be paying them any attention at all.

“Yeah, so,” Ross mumbled, pushing back his chair. “This was fun, let’s do it again sometime. Good time to head home, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Jasmine agreed, rising smoothly and laying a hand on Rasha’s shoulder. “C’mon, Rasha, let’s move out.”

Despite the lack of any direct opposition, not one of them questioned Joe’s warning. New they might be to the Thieves’ Guild proper, but they were all people who knew how the rougher element thought, and behaved. Rarely would anyone else seek out the service of Eserion.


“Now, see here!” Schwartz exclaimed. “We are not in league with—um. That is, I mean… Basra who?”

“Herschel,” Principia said kindly, “hush.”

“Please,” Ami muttered.

“A good number of times in my life,” Principia began, “in fact, just about every time I found myself in a helpless position at the mercy of someone I didn’t like, they took the opportunity to make a speech about how much cleverer they were than I. Okay, not every time, but enough to notice a pattern. It is wholly obnoxious, but it looked like fun, so I’m gonna try it. Besides, you kids clearly need to be taken down a peg right now, for your own good.”

She folded her hands on the table and smiled pleasantly, keeping her body subtly angled to include both Schwartz and Ami in the conversation. Only the bard was physically hemmed into the booth by her presence; Schwartz could have simply stood up and left, but he just scowled sullenly, making no move toward the aisle.

“The last time I saw Ami, here, she was quite literally up to her neck and beyond in Basra’s schemes. Now, I realize you’re a Vesker, Ami dear, and not subordinate to her. Also I understood you were informed of exactly what she nearly did to you, and anyway, you no doubt have a life of your own. Just seeing you again doesn’t necessarily form any connection to the Bishop. However.” She turned her focus to Schwartz, who swallowed heavily. “Making the assumption of Basra’s place in this explains everything so very perfectly that I’m going to have to run with it.”

She rested an elbow on the table to point at him. “You, you claim, have an enemy—someone keeping your would-be turtledove in an abused position. My gods, Herschel, you’re talking about Jenell Covrin? I would never go so far as to claim anyone deserves the kind of shit she’s getting from Syrinx, but that girl could benefit from a few sharp slaps across the mouth in general.”

“Hey!” he barked. “I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head about—”

“And that’s confirmation,” Principia said smugly, cutting him off; he immediately looked abashed. Ami rolled her eyes. “So, you’ve linked up with Ami, here, another individual who’s suffered from Basra’s excesses, and the two of you are building a base from which to take her down. Oh, she’s a rotten piece who absolutely needs to go, but you can’t deny that for both of you there’s an element of personal revenge in this. Have I left out anything important?”

Again, she folded her hands, raising an eyebrow expectantly.

Schwartz and Ami exchanged a look, and then the bard sighed.

“Well, you seem to have covered the basics,” she said snidely. “Are you pleased with yourself?”

“You know, that is rather satisfying,” Principia mused. “I begin to see why all the villains in bards’ tales do it. I must start outwitting people more often. All right, you two, while I’m the last person who will ever argue in favor of Basra bloody Syrinx getting to wander around at liberty, doing whatever the hell she likes, I am strongly tempted to nip this thing in the bud right here. Largely because I can handle her, and I very, very much doubt that you two can. What I’m entirely confident of is your own belief that you’re capable of slaying the monster and rescuing the princess. You are, respectively, in love and attached to a faith which thinks the world runs on narrative. And you’re both barely out of your teens, which makes you invincible in your own minds.”

“My, she’s a condescending one,” Ami said archly. “Even for an elf.”

“Jenell is not a princess,” Schwartz muttered, “and she doesn’t need rescuing. She needs…backup.”

“Hm.” Principia drummed her fingers on the table. “That, at least, is evidence of some sense on your part. Jenell is somewhat trapped in her situation, but not because she has no possible exits. I’ve offered her one myself, and it wasn’t even the best option available to her. No, she’s there for the same reason you two are doing this foolishness; she wants to be the hero who brings down the villain. Well, there’s a lesson with that: heroes and villains aren’t a thing, and acting this way usually ends up with you firmly in your enemy’s clutches. Much like she is now. Right now, I am heavily inclined to go right to both your cults and tell them you’re plotting against the Avenist Bishop, just to get you two safely collared and out of harm’s way.”

“Are you quite done?” Ami demanded.

“No.” Principia sighed and shook her head. “Omnu’s balls, I’m starting to sound like Arachne. Damned Legions, making an officer of me… All right, listen. I have two questions, and the answers may—may, I say—prompt me to change my mind. I want to hear how you two got hooked up together in the first place, and I want to know who it is who’s been telling you,” she fixed a gimlet stare on Schwartz, “to befriend Eserites in preparation for taking on a creature like Basra.”

“Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because that’s very good advice. If you’ve been getting guidance from someone who knows what they’re talking about and is trustworthy… Well, that’s significant. So spit it out. Or shall I go straight from here to Bishop Throale’s office?”

Schwartz drew in a long, slow breath, his shoulders rising with tension, and then let it out carefully, most of the ire fading from his face.

“Abbess Narnasia Darnassy told me to seek out the Eserites,” he said finally. “She also told me to go to an elven grove and ask what anth’auwa means, which I’ve done, and to prepare myself with magic to combat a divine casters. Which…I am working on.”

Principia gazed thoughtfully at him for a long moment, then slowly leaned back against the wall of the booth.

“Narnasia,” she mused. “Yes…I can see it. She wouldn’t be fooled by Syrinx. And she doesn’t suffer evil for political advantage like Rouvad is willing to. All right, consider me…tentatively interested. I still have another question, if you’ll recall.”

“Well,” Ami said, tossing her head, “since that one calls for a story, I believe I shall take over from here, Herschel. If you’ve no objection?”

“Oh, by all means,” he said, waving a hand wearily. “Be my guest. I’m a little surprised you’re that willing to trust her, though.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” she chided. “She has enough figured out on her own that it hardly matters, after all. And anyway, this isn’t an entirely unexpected development.” A feline little smile tugged at the corners of her sculpted lips, and she glanced coyly at Principia. “After all, we’re due an ally and mentor. It’s about that time in the story.”

“Oh, gods,” Principia groaned. “You kids are so dead.”

“Well!” Ami said, her tone suddenly airy and bright. “You know some of the lead-in, so I shall cut to the proverbial chase. It began for us in a townhouse in Vrin Shai…”


A place like the Den naturally had multiple bolt-holes; all of its entrances and exits were admirably discreet, and fortunately, Joe knew most of them. The group exited by a path which provided a somewhat gentler climb (albeit a longer and more roundabout one), and a less public exit than the one through the floor of the Stock Exchange. When they emerged into the alley behind the Exchange, the sky had darkened; at this time of year, night fell early, and despite the unseasonable warmth the air was sharp.

“All right, gimme a sec,” Ross said, carefully leaning Rasha against the wall. Jasmine and Tallie had both helped pull and push the drunken Punaji along, but Ross had taken on most of the effort. Rasha, who was sober enough to stand, but not to move consistently in any direction, had objected so loudly to Joe touching him that their new acquaintance had quickly backed off and not offered a second time.

“’m fine, gerroff me,” Rasha growled, trying to shove at Ross and succeeding only in tipping himself sideways. Tallie, fortunately, was hovering close enough to catch him.

“You were asking me why I don’t drink?” Jasmine said wryly to her. Tallie gave her a look, but didn’t reply.

“Gonna be a fun walk back to the Guild,” Ross grumbled. “Least it’s clean here. The hell kind of alley is this?”

“A discreet one,” said Joe. “Lots of junk piled at either end, with just enough space to slip through, but we ain’t the only people to make use of this exit. C’mon, it’s just gonna get colder from here, an’ it’ll probably rain before too much longer.”

“Doesn’t really look like rain,” Jasmine said, peering upward. The stars were invisible thanks to the city’s light pollution, but the sky didn’t appear to be overcast for once.

“It’s Tiraas,” Joe said pointedly. “It’s always gonna rain, unless it sleets instead.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m sorry,” Rasha said tearfully, now leaning against Ross’s huge shoulder. “I runed th’whole night…” Ross sighed and patted him heavily on the head.

“No, you didn’t,” Tallie said. “Although, for future reference, we’re gonna have to limit your drinking. Can’t believe we let you down four glasses of that stuff. You’ve got the body mass of a starved squirrel, boy.”

“Don’ call me small!” Rasha flared up, flailing his arms so ineffectually it was impossible to tell what he was actually trying to do. “I’m not a boy! I’m not gay!”

Ross, again holding him upright, rolled his eyes.

“Alternatively,” Tallie mused, “we could let him finish getting drunk enough to go nice and unconscious. That might be easier. Did anybody think to grab the jug?”

“Easier for you, maybe,” Ross grumbled. “Something tells me you won’t be the one carrying him.”

“Good evening.”

All of them reflexively went still, even Rasha. Ross pressed him back against the wall with one hand, shifting his body in front of the smaller boy; Tallie and Jasmine both widened their stances, and Joe carefully shifted one side of his coat, his hand hovering near the wand holstered on his right hip.

Four figures had materialized out of the surrounding dimness, two from each direction. None were any taller than Jasmine’s shoulder, all where broad and blocky, and all were covered from head to foot in obscuring brown robes that appeared almost clerical. The one who had spoken was on their left, and moved a half-step in front of his nearby companion, continuing in a light Svennish accent.

“I hope the night finds you well,” he said politely. “We wish to have a brief conversation with you.”

“This isn’t the best time,” Tallie said warily, glancing back and forth. The two pairs of dwarves simply stood, the only menace being their obscuring costumes and the fact that they were completely cutting off the exits. They could get back into the Den, probably, but not without turning their backs on the dwarves to finagle the hidden doorway; it wasn’t even visible from this side, having swung shut behind them. “We’re taking our friend home. He’s had a couple too many, as you can see.”

“I think we c’n take ’em!” Rasha blurted, trying to stumble forward. Ross planted a broad hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back against the wall.

“Oh, this need not take long,” the lead dwarf said pleasantly. “You were present last night when an exchange of goods was disrupted by the Silver Legions. We require information regarding that.”

“We don’t have any,” Jasmine said evenly. “We’re just apprentices. We were just keeping watch and carrying boxes.”

“That is, of course, possible,” he said, his shrouded head bobbing once in a nod. “It is also possible that, in keeping with your thief-cult’s general pattern of behavior, you are lying. Either for specific reason or from a general desire to be troublesome.”

“Well, maybe we are and maybe we aren’t,” Tallie snapped. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re done here. Excuse us, we need to leave.”

“Excuse us,” the dwarf replied, still politely, “but we will have to insist.”

As one, all four of them took a step forward, markedly shrinking the space between them and the apprentices.

Joe, in response, paced forward to stand next to Jasmine, facing the dwarves on the left while she faced the others.

“Gentlemen,” he drawled, “I haven’t the faintest idea what this is about; I’m clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time, here. What I do know is that you have no idea the gravity of the mistake you’re makin’. Now, kindly step aside so we can leave.”

“Young man,” the speaker replied, “there is absolutely no reason this cannot be a perfectly civil exchange. If, however, you are determined not to meet us halfway, I will remind you all that no one knows where you are, and you are none of you important enough to your Guild that they will expend much effort to find you. Now, then—”

He broke off and tried to jerk back when Joe’s wands came up, but not fast enough. The beams of white light were almost blinding in the darkness of the alley, though they flashed for only a second. In that time, the other dwarves surged forward, producing cudgels and long daggers from within their robes, only to stop when Joe shifted his stance to point one wand in each direction, covering both groups.

The first dwarf was now clutching the remains of his robe, which had been neatly sliced along his outline by the wand beams and was trying to fall off him in pieces.

“Pardon my lack o’ manners in not tippin’ my hat, but as you can see, my hands are occupied,” Joe said grimly. “Name’s Joseph P. Jenkins, from Sarasio. You mighta heard o’ me.”

“Hooooo-leeee shit,” Tallie whispered, gaping at him.

The dwarf had given up on his robe, letting it fall to reveal a well-tailored suit covering his stocky frame; he contented himself with clutching the remains of the hood over his head, managing to mostly obscure his features, aside from a reddish beard trimmed just above his collarbone.

“You are a long way from Sarasio, young man,” he said curtly, “and have thrust your wands into matters well above your head. We are not here alone, and our disappearance will be noted—and responded to, swiftly and severely.”

“This is gettin’ to be oddly traditional,” Joe muttered. “Every good-sized city I visit, I end up shootin’ some nitwit in an alley. Buster, you’re standin’ here threatening members of the Thieves’ Guild. That does not say to me that you represent a particularly savvy organization.”

“And you are completely backwards in your thinking,” Jasmine added grimly, “if you believe the Guild won’t react to the disappearance of apprentices. Eserion’s people aren’t in it to steal; we’re training to humble the abusive, the powerful.”

“Damn right,” Tallie added, stepping forward. “You go picking on the Guild’s younglings, and there won’t be a place on this earth for you to hide.”

“Well,” the dwarf said in apparent calm, “that being the case, it does appear to be against our interests to let you leave here, doesn’t it?”

He shifted one hand to his belt; Joe’s wand snapped to cover him, but an instant later his fingers touched the shielding charm attached to the buckle, and a sphere of blue light flashed into being around him. The others immediately followed suit, the bubbles of arcane energy fizzing and crackling where they touched one another.

“All right,” Joe murmured, “gotta say, this could be trouble. I can burn through those shields, but not quickly, an’ takin’ on four dwarves hand-to-hand ain’t a winnin’ move.” He eased backward into Jasmine’s line of view and gave her a pointed look.

She sighed heavily, and clenched her jaw. “Understood.”

Before she could say or do anything further, however, the pounding of multiple booted feet sounded from their right. The dwarves on that side moved in an obviously well-trained pattern, one keeping his face to the apprentices while the other shifted to his back, facing that way.

Three Silver Legionnaires approached out of the darkness, un-helmeted but in armor. Four yards away, the elf in their center barked, “Form line!” Instantly, they shifted to a crouch, shields forward and lances aimed. It was a trifling size for a phalanx, but did effectively block the whole alley. And it was, after all, a shield wall bristling with spearheads.

“You,” the elf announced in a ringing voice, “will immediately deactivate those shields, turn, and depart this scene. You will do this to avoid the bloodshed which will ensue if we are forced to take you into custody.”

A beat of silence followed. The dwarves’ leader, still holding his severed hood, shifted his head minutely, studying the apprentices, Joe, and the Legionnaires. In the next moment, however, he took a step back, bowed politely, and touched his belt again. His shield flickered off, followed by those of his comrades.

“A pleasant evening to you all,” he said courteously. “We will continue this discussion another time. It is my fervent hope we can do so on the politest of terms.”

He and the dwarf beside him began backing away; the other two edged along the wall in front of the apprentices, urged by the continuing advance of the Legionnaires. Once both groups met up, they turned and departed as rapidly as they could without breaking into unseemly haste.

“Holy shit,” Tallie breathed, “I can’t believe I’m glad to see Legionnaires, after last night. And holy shit!” she added to Joe. “You’re the freakin’ Sarasio Kid!”

He sighed. “Miss Tallie, I was hangin’ around in the roughest dive in this city, clearly too young to be drinkin’, an’ dressed in a suit that cost more’n the places most of those galoots live. And yet, nobody even thought too hard about hasslin’ me. You didn’t happen to wonder why? No disrespect intended, but based on the Eserites I’ve known, you may wanna start talkin’ a little less and thinkin’ a lot more if you mean to advance in their ranks.”

“Wow,” she muttered. “I guess I’ll just shut up, then.”

“Stand at ease,” the elf said, and the Legionnaires straightened, lowering their shields and weapons.

“Hey,” said Ross, frowning, “you’re the ones who arrested us.”

“Thin’ we c’n take um,” Rasha burbled, slumped against his shoulder.

“Actually, a different squad arrested us,” said Jasmine, studying the soldiers closely. “These were from the squad who came to hand out punishment. What was it? Interfaith initiative? I’m finding it a challenge to believe that you just happened to be patrolling this alley at this time.”

“As well you should,” said the elf. “I am Corporal Shahai, and we’ve been looking for you. I believe you should consider how it was those dwarves managed to find you.”

“How did you manage to find us?” Tallie demanded.

“Persistence, luck, and elven hearing,” Shahai replied with a thin smile. “They, whoever they are, have only one of those advantages, and I am extremely suspicious of luck. Odd enough that we should have it in such quantity; that they should as well defies belief. That group is extremely well connected, and it would seem, extremely curious about those weapons they were attempting to buy.”

“Let me guess,” Tallie said slowly.

Shahai nodded. “The Sisterhood currently has custody of them, and are likewise very curious. It has proved impossible to tell, so far, what they do. Our squad hoped you could shed some light on the subject.”

“Not tellin’ you nuthin’!” Rasha blustered, pointing off to her right.

“Rasha, go to sleep,” Ross said wearily.

“We’re not tellin’ you nothin’!” Tallie added, pointing dramatically at Shahai.

“Tallie, shut up!” Ross exclaimed in exasperation. “Ma’am…uh, I mean, sergeant.”

“Corporal,” she corrected with smile.

“Right. Well, we don’t know anything about what those were, but we need to look up the guy who set up the trade and lean on him for our own reasons. We’ll find out what we can, and be glad to tell you whatever we learn.”

“What!” Tallie squawked.

“Connections,” Jasmine said quietly. “Not just in the Guild. Right?” She turned to fix Tallie with a firm stare. “We’re supposed to be building connections. Do you really not see how allies in the Silver Legions could be incredibly useful to us? In general, but also, apparently, right now. They aren’t the only interested party who thinks we know something about those staves.”

“And the other party are a lot less friendly,” Ross added in a low rumble.

“I…well…oh, fine,” she huffed, folding her arms. “I guess. I’m still watchin’ you, though!” She leveled an accusing finger at Shahai.

“Noted,” the corporal said mildly. “Your willingness to help is greatly appreciated; I have limited authority, but I’m confident our sergeant will fully reciprocate.”

“Is she actually in the Guild?” Ross asked, frowning.

“Yes, she actually is, and that creates complications when it comes to dealing with Eserites. You may not see her directly very much, but Sergeant Locke has our implicit trust. You can find us most of the time at the Third Legion barracks behind the Temple of Avei. How can we reach you, at need?”

“Uh…” Ross turned to the others. “That’s a good question. How can they reach us?”

“We can leave word at the Casino that any Legionnaires who come asking for us have legit business,” said Tallie, still looking miffed. “I dunno how much weight our say-so has, though. Something tells me the average thief’s urge to mess with the Legions weighs more.”

“It might generally be better if you wait for us to contact you,” Jasmine said wryly.

“So noted,” Shahai replied in the same tone.

“And corporal,” Jasmine added, “try firing one of those staves at a divine shield.”

Shahai fixed her with a sharp stare, and after a moment, nodded slowly. “Very well. I will pass that along to Sergeant Locke. Thank you, Ms…?”

“Jasmine.”

“Ah.” The elf nodded again. “Well met. With that, perhaps you would allow us to escort you out of this alley? I doubt you will be accosted again on the well-lit main streets, but…”

“That is an excellent point,” said Ross, picking Rasha up bodily and hoisting him over his shoulder.

“I dun’ need one!” the Punaji burbled ineffectually.

“Hey, uh…” Tallie turned hesitantly to Joe. “Those creeps know who you are now, too. Will you be okay? I mean, I know, that sounds kinda silly, you bein’ the Sarasio Kid and all…”

“Not silly at all,” Joe murmured. “The more complicated a situation, the less likely you can just shoot your way out of it. But I’m not without friends of my own. Tell you what, though, I believe I may just pay y’all a visit here pretty soon.” He glanced at Corporal Shahai. “Both groups.”

“You would be welcome,” she said with a smile.

As the motley group straggled back up the alley toward the busy street beyond, Nandi half-turned for a moment to look back and up.

Perched in a windowsill of the Exchange overlooking the alley, Grip grinned widely and waggled her fingers at her. Nandi turned without acknowledgment and continued on her way.

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11 – 8

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“When you said we were going someplace villainous, I didn’t think you were being funny,” Jasmine said, having to pitch her voice loudly above the shouting, pounding of feet, and general mayhem.

The Imperial Stock Exchange more closely resembled a sporting event of some kind than a place where money was counted and trade conducted. Wide-open in plan, it appeared to have been set up in a converted warehouse, with all its interesting features along the sides. No fewer than four dedicated telescroll towers bristled from the north edge of the building, their ground-level machinery and operators constantly pressed to keep up with business in their alcoves along that wall. The west wall was lit up by a huge magic mirror, quite possibly the largest of its kind in existence, upon which lists of inscrutable numbers and abbreviations glowed in blue and red, constantly moving, altering, and occasionally changing color back and forth. The other walls were heavily decorated: the triple-coin sigil of Verniselle was prominently and repeatedly displayed, as was the flag of the Tiraan Empire, a silver gryphon on a black field, represented in both its vertical and horizontal forms. There were also, closer to the floor, a goodly number of modern lightcaps, the sepia-toned portraits depicting mostly scenes from this very room.

It was both insanely crowded, and crowdedly insane. The floor teemed like an anthill in a state of perpetually recent kicking, most of the traders agitated well beyond the limits of socially acceptable behavior, filling the air with their shouting and the sharp smell of sweat. Beneath them, the floor was an icky morass of crumpled slips of paper, cigar butts, and spilled liquor. There were a good number of Vernisite clerics present, notably not only for their sigil badges and robes, but calmer bearing—calmer, and in many cases, visibly smug. Interestingly, the general press of stock traders were overwhelmingly male, while at least two in three of the clerics were women.

“Yeah, yeah, bankers are all crooked, I get it,” Tallie said breezily, likewise all but shouting to be heard. She grinned back at the others as she led them around the edge of the room. “Frankly there’s a couple of more subtle and more direct ways to get where we’re going, but I thought you guys oughta see this at least once. And no, this isn’t our final destination.”

“I could’ve done without this entirely,” Rasha said, edging closer to Jasmine and constantly eying the chaos around him; shouting, gesticulating men repeatedly pressed close to them, never quite accidentally clocking anyone with a careless fist or elbow, but that was likely only because the group was paying attention and moving out of the way. No one answered him; he’d spoken in a normal tone, which rendered his words basically inaudible.

At least Tallie didn’t dawdle. Their destination was a doorway in the back corner of the huge room; double-wide and with no doors to block the view, it revealed a broad spiral staircase of wrought iron descending straight down into a wide shaft cut into the floor. Two men were having a loud argument right outside; between the nigh-incoherent ferocity of their disagreement and the general noise, it was impossible to tell what it was even about, but the group hurried past them as quickly as possible. They seemed on the verge of coming to blows. Hidden inside the doorway, tucked just out of sight from the trading floor, a man and a woman were locked in a kiss in the corner, going about it with such passion they seemed unaware they were in a public place. Rasha ducked his head, flushing furiously as they passed the little scene. He was somewhat comforted by noting that both Jasmine and even Ross seemed uncomfortable as well, though Tallie, of course, only cheered at them in passing.

The cacophony of the trading floor followed them down the stairs, but the smaller room into which the staircase terminated was much quieter. It was a bar, and a middling expensive one to judge by the quality of its woodwork. Only middling due to the scuffs, scratches, and cigar burns which marred most of the surfaces, but still; the layout was discreet and its furnishings clearly meant to be classy, the bartender well-dressed and even the passing serving girl attired with a modesty which set the place apart from the cheaper set of pubs. Despite the early hour, it was more than hall-full, mostly with disheveled traders slouched over drinks—in some cases, whole bottles—wearing despondent expressions.

“They do the celebratory drinking up above,” Tallie said cheerfully as she led them through the room, ignoring a couple of filthy glares from sullen-looking men. “Anybody who comes down here in a good mood is usually buying a bottle to take back up top.”

“I’m still not seeing the villainy I was promised,” Jasmine noted.

“Patience, Jas, we’ll get there. Welcome to the Corral; we won’t be here long. Here we are!”

She had taken them straight through the bar to a door in the back, and immediately pulled this open, stepping through and gesturing the others after. They exchanged a round of dubious glances before following.

They were now in a public toilet. A nicely-appointed one, as toilets went, but still.

“I feel this is an appropriate time to mention,” Jasmine said, “that I don’t have a lot of patience for practical jokes.”

“Y’know, somehow, I sort of predicted that about you,” Tallie said with a grin, once again walking straight through and ignoring the rows of toilet stalls. She marched right up to the wall opposite the door and rapped sharply on it.

After a second’s pause, a framed ornithological print of a mallard suddenly slid aside, revealing a pair of suspiciously squinting eyes.

“Speak, friend, and enter,” said a male voice, muffled slightly by the intervening wall.

“Fortune is a harlot!” Tallie replied cheerfully.

The mallard slammed back into place. A second later, there was a muted click, and the entire wall swung away. Behind it, an enormously burly man in a suit that was clearly tailored to his bulky frame stepped back. In addition to being thick, he was hugely tall; he clearly had had to bend down to place his eyes in front of the hidden slot.

“Top o’ the evenin’, Scott!” Tallie said. “How they hangin’?”

“Ask me again when I’m not on watch,” he replied with a thin smile. She laughed and patted his arm in passing. Scott’s expression sobered as he studied the rest of them, but he made no move to impede their way, and after a moment, the other apprentices resumed following their guide.

The narrow space beyond the false wall led to another descending staircase, this one carved of stone. More noise and light filtered up from below, growing louder as they traveled downward. This was a longer staircase, carrying them down at least three stories.

“Gonna have to show restraint,” Ross grumbled. “Don’t wanna hafta climb this drunk.”

“That’s one reason to show restraint,” Jasmine agreed dryly.

The stairwell opened onto yet another loud, well-lit place, this one a fraction the size of the stock exchange above. Their group stopped just inside to stare around, Tallie grinning proudly, the rest in a kind of awe.

It was a circular room, roughly, arranged in three tiers. The thick stone column containing the staircase let out on the middle tier, which was the broadest; immediately to their right was a well-attended bar, with doors behind it probably leading into kitchens. This broad, circular space was laid out with tables and chairs, its inner ring marked by a wrought-iron rail ten feet tall; they were clearly serious about not letting anyone fall into the lower pit. Probably a wise precaution, considering the screeching, howling and crashing emanating from below, though between the angle and the cheering spectators ringing it, they couldn’t see what was going on down there. More tables were laid out around the upper tier, but they seemed to be more widely-spaced and attended by a better-dressed class of people than those down below.

“It’s a bar,” Rasha said finally, “under a smaller bar, under a stock exchange. Why?”

“And this is the Den!” Tallie threw her arms wide, grinning. “Get it? Because up above was the Corral.” Her grin faded slightly at their uncomprehending expressions. “You know. Bulls, bears?”

She got only three blank stares in response, and sighed, lowering her arms.

“I can see I’m gonna have to educate the hell out of you rubes. Anyway, yes, this is the Den, and yes, it’s a bar, but it’s not only that. This is one of Tiraas’s most active gambling dens!”

“I thought gambling was illegal in the Empire,” said Rasha, “and yes, I realized how dumb that was the moment I said it, no need to rub it in.”

“Very stringently regulated rather than illegal,” Jasmine said, her eyes roving constantly around the room. “The Empire doesn’t bother to police friendly betting. Anything organized or high-stakes isn’t allowed, which is why the Casino does such good business, being protected by a Pantheon cult. That’s the basics, anyway. I can’t say I ever cared enough about the Treasury laws to read the details.”

“More than I knew,” Ross grunted.

“Oh, but it’s not just gambling,” Tallie said with relish, again setting off into the fray and leaving them to straggle along behind her. “A place like this, which exists outside the rule of law, attracts all kinds of nasty folks! Mercenaries, bounty hunters, assassins! Lots of members of the Guild hang out here, as well as a good smattering of Imperial Intelligence agents.”

“Huh?” Rasha frowned. “Why would Imps… I mean, if the Empire knows about this, wouldn’t they just shut it down?”

“Some Emperors would’ve,” Ross said. “Sharidan’s too savvy. You shut this down, three more pop up elsewhere. He knows where it is, he can keep an eye on it.”

“Exactly,” Tallie said, giving the normally taciturn apprentice a look of surprise. “At any rate, that’s how it was explained to me when I was first brought here, and it makes perfect sense to me.”

“You come here often?” Rasha asked warily.

“This is my second time!” she said cheerily, weaving through the crowd toward the back of the ring; they had yet to find an unoccupied table. “Flora and Fauna brought me here when I was pretty new. Y’know…last week.”

“You keep mentioning those names,” he noted.

“They’re Sweet’s apprentices!” Tallie said. “Uh, that’s the Bishop. They’re good people.”

“I’ve spoken with them a few times,” Jasmine agreed. “They’re quite helpful.”

“Yeah, even a lot of the senior apprentices, the ones with sponsors, won’t waste their time on unskilled, no-rep nobodies like us,” said Tallie. “But those two are easygoing and usually willing to help out when they’re around. It makes sense, really; they’re Sweet’s apprentices. He’s all about building connections and relationships. Stand to reason he’d’ve taught ’em the same tactics. That’s what you’ll notice about sponsored apprentices, gang. When you get personal training from a ranking thief, you tend to pick up their general outlook and technique, even if you weren’t planning on it.”

“I’m increasingly curious about Grip and Pick,” Rasha commented.

“Recommend staying outta that,” said Ross.

Suddenly, Jasmine broke from the group, rushing over to the rail, where they had come abreast of a gap in the crowd. “Those are demons!” she exclaimed, clearly aghast.

The others moved over to join her, Rasha slipping in beside her while Tallie and Ross had to crane their heads around. He’d never seen a demon before, but he was willing to bet she was right. One of the things down there looked like a crab, with two sets of pincers and three stingers, plus a mouth full of fangs; the other resembled a gecko, except with armored plating, a barbed tail, and absurdly oversized dewclaws in place of sticky pads on its fingertips. Both were bigger than wolfhounds, and both were a mess of bloody scratches and chipped chitin. As they watched, the two combatants surged together again, clawing, biting, and stinging, accompanied by a round of cheers and catcalls from the onlookers.

“Oh, wow,” said Tallie. “Last time I was here they had gladiators. This doesn’t seem like a great idea.”

“That is a massive understatement,” Jasmine growled.

“C’mon.” Tallie tugged at her arm. “There’s a table; let’s grab it while we can.”

Jasmine allowed herself to be led away, scowling thunderously. A table had indeed opened up, and Tallie wasted no time in plopping herself into a seat, the others following suit more slowly, still clearly uncertain of their surroundings. Rasha felt slightly better at being ensconced in a place with people he more or less trusted, but the chaos, noise, and general atmosphere of the Den still did not agree with him. He was beginning to seriously question the wisdom of having come here. Maybe it was time to stop following Tallie into adventures…

“So, uh, who’s buyin’?” Ross asked.

Rasha blinked, then cringed. “I, um, don’t really have any…money,” he admitted.

“Wait,” said Jasmine. “Weren’t we supposed to get paid for doing that job of Pick’s? Does it matter that it went south?”

“That wasn’t our fault!” Rasha exclaimed.

“Hey, you’re right,” Tallie said, scowling suddenly. “If that asshole tries to stiff us on top of ditching us…”

“He’s got two more days,” Ross said in his basso rumble. “Three days from a job to make good on his word ‘cording to Guild custom. Then we can go to Style an’ she’ll beat it out of ‘im to pay us.”

“Good,” Tallie said, nodding with vicious satisfaction. “I almost hope he forgets.”

“Okay, that’ll be good in two days,” Rasha said nervously. “But, uh, for right now…”

“Relax, I can spot us a bottle,” Tallie said easily. “Got a little savings. You can pay me back when Pick coughs up.”

“What’s goin’ on up there?” Ross asked, nodding in the direction of the upper ring.

“Ah!” Tallie said with a grin, clearly relishing her role as deliverer of exposition. “Those are the gaming tables. High-stakes games, the kind the Empire doesn’t technically allow. That sorta thing they don’t really do in the Casino, either.”

“How come?” Rasha asked.

“Because it is a casino. The games there aren’t rigged, exactly, but they’re set up so that the house always has the advantage. Even the poker tables have at least one Guild member participating at all times. So the big shot high rollers only drop by now and again to circulate; anybody who wins too much from the Guild is made unwelcome. I hear the actual Sarasio Kid got kicked outta there not so long ago!”

“Isn’t he out in Sarasio?” Ross said, frowning.

Tallie shrugged. “It’s just what I heard.”

“Why are we here?” Jasmine asked, still peering around. She looked almost as tense as Rasha felt. “It’s…interesting, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not sure if I see the point.”

“You’re new,” Tallie said with friendly condescension. “Being Eserite isn’t just about being a thief, Jasmine. We’re rubbing elbows with the riffraff, scoffing at the law just to be in here, risking a pointless stabbing just to have a drink. We’re showing the world we do not give a shit! This is the life, my friends!”

“I think I’ve made a serious mistake,” Rasha mumbled.

At that moment, a girl in tight pants and an equally tight blouse which covered barely half her chest sashayed up to their table, an empty tray tucked under her arm. “What’ll it be, kids?”

“What’s good?” Tallie asked easily.

“Nothing,” the waitress said immediately, with a smile. “Nothing is good. The operative question is: how drunk are you planning to get?”

“Hm, on that subject…” Tallie shifted to point at Jasmine. “What can you recommend for our teetotaler friend here?”

The serving girl blinked, then tilted her head to one side. “Go home?”

Ross snorted a laugh, which he quickly smothered. Jasmine didn’t look offended, though; if anything, she seemed amused.

“Bottle of spiced rum,” Rasha said, earning a surprised look from Tallie.

“Comin’ atcha!” the waitress replied, tipping him a wink, and then strode off into the crowd, swaying her hips unnecessarily.

“So,” said Tallie, leaning back in her chair and turning to Jasmine. “Now we’re all here and can chat… Who was that elf?”

“Which elf?”

“Don’t give me that,” Tallie said disdainfully. “The elf. How many elves have we met?”

“Two,” Jasmine replied, arching an eyebrow. “That Legion squad at the fortress had two elves. You didn’t notice? It’s odd enough to see even one in a mostly-human army.”

Tallie straightened up, frowning. “What? No, I mean… The squad leader was an elf, the one who claimed she was also in the Guild. That was the only elf I saw.”

“One of the others, too,” Ross grunted. “Kept her helmet on, mostly. You had to look close.”

“Okay, so that is weird,” Tallie acknowledged, “but back on the subject, you still know which elf I meant. The one who was so surprised to see you she dropped her fucking weapon. I’m pretty sure the Legions train people not to do that. What gives? How do you know elves?”

Jasmine opened her mouth, then hesitated.

“Nobody has to share their history,” Rasha said, frowning. “It’s the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not hard to guess some of us are running from something, or just looking for a fresh start.”

“All right, that’s fair,” Tallie said with an easygoing shrug, again lounging back in her chair till it tipped up on two legs. “Just bein’ sociable, but you’re right, nobody’s gotta play show and tell. Me, though, I don’t mind. I’m circus folk, been traveling the whole Empire since I was born.”

“That sounds exciting,” Ross observed.

“It is,” she said in a grimmer tone. “Especially when the Vidians catch up with the troupe. They do not like performing artists who aren’t affiliated with their cult. Veskers, now, those are fine—they’re pretty awesome, actually. Bards never think they’re too good for anyone, and they love hanging around with fellow performers. Most of the cults, though, take their cue from the Vidians. And why not? He’s one of the Trinity. Of course, that’s all it takes for others to pick up on it. Anywhere we went, people would try to take advantage of us. And feel smug about it, because they’re just following a religious example. Feh.”

“Don’t the Imperial authorities protect people from that?” Jasmine asked.

Tallie shrugged, twisting her lips bitterly. “It depends on the authority. We had Sheriffs and Marshals both stand up for us and be the worst bullies, and everything in between. I’ll tell you what, though. When I was eleven, we were camped near a town in Mathenon Province, and a barn burned. Well, that was all it took, that an a Sheriff who was a fucking asshole. The whole troupe was arrested. The whole troupe. As if we had anything to gain from burning some poor bastard’s barn. Farmers may be rubes, but they work hard, and that’s not an easy life. We understood that, and never gave trouble to anybody who’d treat us fairly. But one barn goes up while we’re nearby, and bam, we all get crammed into the jail for arson. I wasn’t even the youngest.”

“Why?” Jasmine demanded, scowling. “What possible point could there be in that?”

“Sometimes it’s just about power,” Rasha said wearily. “For some people, that’s the only point they need.”

“Not that time, though,” Tallie sneered. “We had stuff. Animals, both to pull wagons and some exotic ones that performed. Tents. Carts, mundane and enchanted. Our take. A circus isn’t rich, but it has assets. For a crooked little back-country Sheriff, it was enough to be well worth seizing.”

She straightened up, folded her arms on the table, and smiled, a slow, malicious expression.

“Unfortunately for that particular shithead, there was a Guild thief passing through the town, who’d stopped to watch our show. While we were being rounded up, he was zipping back to Mathenon for more Guild members. A dozen of them descended on that little flyspeck village.” Her grin broadened. “I don’t exactly know what they did, but Sheriff Arseface was pale and practically gibbering when he came to let us out of our cells. The wagons had been rifled, clearly, we had to pack everything away properly, but not so much as a copper was missing. A dozen Eserites accompanied us to the edge of the province, just in case any of the local hicks were feeling vindictive; nobody tried anything. And the thieves were happy enough to answer questions from a curious kid. Well, that’s when I decided what I wanted to do with my life. The world is full of assholes who live to push around people like mine. I never realized until then that the world also had people who’d push back.”

She leaned back again, folding her arms with a satisfied expression. The others all nodded slowly, each wearing thoughtful expressions.

“There are true believers in every cult,” Jasmine said quietly. “But also abusers who see a religion as something to exploit. Probably more of those in the Guild than most faiths.”

“Sure, I know that,” Tallie said with a shrug. “But there are believers, and they do Eserion’s work, not just to line their pockets. There’s gonna be one more when I’m through.”

“Respect that,” Ross grunted, nodding to her.

Their waitress reappeared suddenly, the tray laden this time. She deftly set four glasses down, followed by a substantial bottle of amber liquid. “And here we are! I’ll warn you, this swill isn’t what you get back home,” she added, winking at Rasha. “The Den serves only the finest of rotgut, moonshine, and bottled hellfire. Hardly anybody ever goes blind, at least not while still on the premises.”

“Music to my ears!” Tallie sang, already reaching for the bottle, which in truth was more of a jug. Its label was crudely hand-drawn, apparently depicting a trident with the inscription The Storm Cares Not. “Money now, or later?”

“Actually, you’re settled up,” said the waitress, stepping back and tucking her tray under her arm again. “Next bottle you pay for in advance, and probably the one after that. We’re not exactly a trusting institution; you don’t get a tab until you show you’re good for it.”

“And yet we get a bottle on the house,” Jasmine said suspiciously.

“You’re new,” the girl replied, waggling her eyebrows. “The house is not that generous. Nah, somebody likes the look of one or more of you. One of the high-rollers spotted you this round. You get thirsty again, sing out!”

She sashayed off again with a toss of her hair, leaving the group to stare after her in confusion, then at their bottle of spiced rum.

“So,” Ross said after a moment, “when you were here before, you made some friends?”

“I…guess?” Tallie shrugged. “I mean, I get along with people, but not anybody in particular that I remember.”

“We’re at a table with two pretty girls,” Rasha observed. “Tables up there are full of rich guys who play poker for too much money. It was bound to happen.”

“Aw, you little sweet-talker, you,” Tallie cooed at him, fluttering her lashes. He hated himself for blushing, partly because he knew it would just encourage her.

“I think I see our admirer,” Ross mumbled, pointing with his forehead. The others turned to follow his gaze, just in time to see a teenage boy in an expensive-looking suit stroll up to them, the tigers eye set into his bolo tie flashing distractingly.

“Well, hey there,” he said with an amiable grin, strolling straight up to Jasmine. “Can’t say I was expecting—”

“Hi!” she interrupted loudly, thrusting out a hand at him. “My name’s Jasmine.”

The boy paused, blinking at her in surprise, then glanced down at her hand. After a moment of apparent confusion, he tentatively took it. “Okay. It’s good to…meet you?”

“Awwwww!” Tallie squealed. “He’s adorable! Look at his little suit! How old are you?”

“Tallie,” Rasha said sharply. “You are being incredibly condescending.”

Their benefactor glanced wryly at him; fortunately, he didn’t seem particularly offended, so much as resigned.

“Aw, but look!” Tallie said. “Look what a handsome little guy he is! Really, though, are you old enough to be in here? This is a bar. It’s pretty much the sketchiest bar in town.”

“It’s a sight worse’n that, to speak the plain truth,” the teenager replied.

“How about we’re polite to the guy who buys us drinks?” Ross said, giving Tallie a disapproving glower. “Good to meet you, and thanks for the bottle. I’m Ross.”

“Pleasure,” said the teen, tipping his hat to them. His gaze turned inquisitive, landing again on Jasmine. “Name’s Joe. So, uh…what brings you here?”

Jasmine winced, glancing quickly around at the others. “I’m really starting to wish I knew.”

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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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10 – 49

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“Movement!” the Legionnaire with her eye pressed to the telescope suddenly announced.

Everyone in the command tent was instantly alert and facing her, which wasn’t much of a change as they had all been tense and pretending with varying degrees of effort to be engaged in other things. The exception, of course, was Aspen, who at first had seemed not to understand the problem, but revealed upon having it explained that she actually just didn’t care. She and Ingvar had been engrossed in a quiet conversation in a rear corner of the pavilion. Whatever they were talking about had occasionally drawn startled looks from Yrril, despite her Narisian reserve.

“Well?” General Vaumann said tersely.

“They’re getting up,” the Legionnaire reported. “Standing and… No signs of agitation. Still seem to be talking… Everything’s still quiet.”

Joe let out an audible sigh, and several of those assembled slouched in quieter imitation. Ami, who had given up strumming her guitar after her attempts to “lighten the mood” had drawn annoyed looks and finally a shouted reprimand from Colonel Nintaumbi, wrapped her arms around it and looked sullen.

“Wait,” the watcher said, and the crowd tensed again.

“Make up your mind,” Ami muttered.

“They’re… Separating. Bishop Syrinx is leaving, coming back this way.”

“And the elf?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

“He’s turning… Appears to be departing as well. Yes—confirmed! The headhunter is retreating back into the forest.”

An audible exhalation from multiple throats passed around the tent. Schwartz muttered something unintelligible, sagging against at tent pole hard enough to shake it and earn an irritated look from a nearby Legionnaire.

“Continuing…target is lost to sight in the treeline, now. Bishop Syrinx is proceeding back this way on foot.” Basra’s horse, left unattended, had wandered off earlier, which the scout had also reported.

“Sir?” an Imperial Army soldier wearing a captain’s bars said to Nintaumbi. “Shall I stand down the alert?”

“Absolutely not,” the Colonel said firmly. “We wait at minimum to hear what Syrinx has to say about her conversation. Agreed?”

He glanced up at Vaumann, who nodded. Yrril just stood in apparent calm, watching down the field. The exact acuity of her eyes was something she hadn’t seen fit to elaborate upon; a surface elf would be able to see almost as well as the human with the telescope, and while drow theoretically had similar capabilities, they were significantly disadvantaged by the sunlight.

“Well,” Nintaumbi added more softly, “I guess the only casualty here has been Bishop Darling. He had to have crossed paths with that creature… There’s only one way that could end up.”

“With all respect, Colonel,” Joe said, “I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about Darling.”

“I’m not certain what combat capabilities he may have,” Ingvar agreed, “but if anyone living could talk his way out of fighting a headhunter…”

“Um…” Everyone turned to stare at the scout, who was still watching through her spyglass. “Now that you mention it…”


“Why, fancy meeting you here!”

At being hailed, Basra halted her march back toward the armies, turning to stare at Darling, who was strolling casually toward her from the coastline to the southeast.

“Antonio,” she said at a more normal volume as he drew close enough to hear it. “It seems this should surprise me, but somehow, it just doesn’t. I think I’ve lost the ability to be taken aback by anything you do.”

“Now, you mustn’t say things like that, Bas,” he said brightly, coming up to stand alongside her. “That’s the next best thing to a challenge!”

She shook her head. “How did your conversation go?”

“I realize you asked first and there’s a certain etiquette attached to that,” he replied, “but really. Your conversation was obviously a lot more important, and I’m betting a lot more interesting. So…?” He gazed at her expectantly.

Basra grunted and turned to resume her stride toward the front lines, her fellow Bishop falling into step beside her. “About like I expected, though it took longer than I thought.”

“You expected a successful negotiation with a headhunter?”

“I expected to be able to pull his strings, but… That man was more obviously insane than even the stereotype suggests. I don’t know if you’ve dug up anything on headhunters in your infamous research into Elilial, but you’ve talked with that creep Mary enough to probably know they aren’t quite like the rumors tell us. That fellow was clearly far gone. He can’t have been fresh from Athan’Khar, unless he was wildly unstable even before going in. I wonder what he’s been doing up till now; I didn’t get much out of him about that.”

“And yet, you got him to turn around and leave.” Darling shook his head in wonder. “That has to be the century’s foremost feat of diplomacy.”

Basra grinned. “Well, I think so, but most diplomats seem to object to my characterization of diplomacy as piles and piles of lies and manipulations. Most people don’t much like having their illusions exposed. Anyway, he’s gone for now. I don’t know how much time this has bought, but he probably won’t attack in the direction of Viridill again. So that’s my conversation, and if you want the fine details, you’ll have to wait. I’ve no doubt you plan to invite yourself along for the full debriefing I’ll need to give the commanders, anyway, and I don’t enjoy repeating myself.” She glanced shrewdly at him. “Which brings us to you. Since you were coming from the shoreline, hell and gone from the road you went in on, I assume one of your shifty friends found and warned you before you stumbled across the creature?”

“Right,” he said more seriously. “On to the next battle. Before we reach the others, there are a few things I think you should know.”


The trip back to campus was a slow one, being long, uphill, and taken on foot (with the obvious exception of Fross). Trissiny and Gabriel had dismissed their mounts, considering it awkward to ride when nobody else could; Whisper wasn’t built for multiple riders, and Arjen couldn’t carry everybody. For the most part, it was also a quiet walk. The sounds of continued jubilation from the town below had mostly faded into the distance by the time they’d exhausted their efforts to theorize as to Embras Mogul’s true motives.

Their general feeling about the encounter was not celebratory.

“Uh…” Gabriel craned his neck back to glance up at the position of the sun as they passed through the archway onto the campus proper. “Crap, can’t see Clarke Tower from here.”

“It’s a relief,” Ruda commented, “to learn that you don’t automatically know the spots from which our dorm is visible, Arquin.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s the biggest clock on campus. I’m fairly sure we’re gonna miss lunch if we wanna get to class on time.”

“Always on top of priorities,” Toby said with a smile.

“Hey, proper nutrition is important,” Juniper said seriously. “That’s true even when we haven’t just climbed a mountain.”

“Yes, this has been altogether inconvenient,” Shaeine said solemnly. “In the future, we should ask any deranged warlocks we encounter to schedule their assaults no earlier than four o’clock.”

“Huh,” Fross mused. “I wonder if that would work.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do my best to accommodate you,” Embras Mogul said cheerfully, stepping out from behind a tree just ahead. “All you have to to is ask!”

Weariness and malaise vanished in an instant; weapons came out, various auras sprang to life, and Vadrieny burst forth from Teal.

“You have made your last mistake!” Trissiny roared, golden wings blazing.

“Children!”

Everyone hesitated, though no one powered down or disarmed, and only half of them took their eyes off the warlock to glance up at the gatepost beside the arch, atop which Professor Ekoi suddenly sat, her tail twitching in disapproval.

“For once, would you think before attacking? The wards over this campus would repel incursions by far greater foes than this. Mr. Mogul is an invited guest. I expect initiates of this University to evince sufficient decorum to treat him as such.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Gabriel exclaimed.

“What a curious question,” Ekoi mused. “If I had, clearly I would not know it. And if I had not, I would take offense at the implication. What possible motivation could you have for saying such a thing, Mr. Arquin?”

“I’m thoughtless and fed up with your crap, that’s what!” he shouted.

“For heaven’s sake, boy, hush. I realize class is not formally in session, but this is still an institution of learning. I have arranged, at great effort, a demonstration for you. Compose yourselves and learn, please.”

“Well, pardon me for contradicting your point, General,” Mogul said cheerfully, recapturing everyone’s attention, “but I expect to make a great many more mistakes. Perhaps if you pay attention to the good Professor, here, you’ll someday find yourself in a position to take advantage of one!”

“That does it.” Trissiny took a step forward, sword upraised.

“Avelea.” Ekoi’s tone was calm. “Do not make me come down there.”

“Would it matter if I pointed out that Arquin can see up your robe?” Ruda asked.

“What?” Gabriel said shrilly. “I wouldn’t—Ruda, for once can you not be such a creep?”

“They’re rather cute, aren’t they?” Mogul said to Ekoi. “With the banter, and everything. I didn’t realize adventuring groups actually did that! The chapbooks don’t seem historically authoritative, at a casual glance.”

“Because they do it doesn’t make it sound policy,” Ekoi remarked.

“Well, I for one always respect a spot of good drama. Well? Don’t be shy, let me have it.” He spread his arms wide, grinning and seemingly unconcerned with the array of destructive power poised to descend on him. “How was it? The yokels seemed to eat it up, but I dunno… Not one of my best performances, I don’t think. It felt a little overworked. Wouldn’t you say?”

“We’re not doing this,” Toby said flatly. “We are not going to indulge you in conversation. Just do whatever it is Professor Ekoi is tolerating your presence for, please.”

“Unless you want to learn whether she’s actually capable of stopping all of us from tearing you apart,” Vadrieny snarled.

“It’s so odd,” the Professor mused, “being among people who think that is in question. This is why I should make time to leave Sifan more often; too long away from the wild world and one forgets. Vestrel, that language is not acceptable. There are children here, for heaven’s sake.”

Gabriel clutched Ariel and his staff in a white-knuckled grip, suddenly looking rattled.

“Indeed, tempers appear to be fraying even as we speak,” Mogul said, tipping his hat to them. “So, dear students, the question is, as always: What have we learned today?”

“Fuck it, let’s kill him,” Ruda suggested.

“Wait,” said Shaeine softly.

“You arranged that whole thing,” Fross accused. “The demon trace thing, all of it. From the beginning. Why? What do you get from that?”

“Turning us against the Archpope, for starters,” Toby said tersely.

“Ah, ah, ah.” Mogul wagged a chiding finger at them. “Nothing so crude. Turning you against someone is…well, it’s such a limited gambit. That’s the kind of thing you do to bit players who don’t really matter in the long run. It’s usually all too simple. No, consider the fact that the most esteemed Ekoi-sensei finds my presence and activities here tolerable. Aside from clear evidence that I’m not here to harm you, that shows what, specifically, I’m out to help you do. Which is…?”

He smiled expectantly at them.

“Learn,” Shaeine whispered.

“Bingo!” Mogul pointed at her. “The fact that you and I are nominally enemies is a condition of circumstance, not essential nature. You don’t seem to grasp, yet, how ephemeral all your affiliations and bonds truly are. Unlike the various cults that trained you before now, I’m not out to tell you who you should trust, what you should believe.” He folded his arms and adopted a cocky pose, smirking from beneath the brim of his hat. “What I want is the same thing your teacher, here, wants. The same thing Professor Tellwyrn wants. I want you to think. I want you to look beyond the surface, to question what you are told, to take nothing for granted. I told you before: the Black Wreath is on the side of truth. But I also told you that the truth would be devalued if I just dropped it on you. You’ll have to learn to seek it out for yourselves.”

“This guy is so full of it,” Gabriel muttered, unconsciously raising Ariel. Blue sigils along her blade flared to life.

“That I most certainly am,” Mogul agreed. “For the love of all that’s unholy, don’t take anything I tell you at face value—surely you’ve got that much figured out already. This time you made a lot of assumptions and a lot of rash actions. You thought like adventurers.” He shook his head. “As I’m sure a few people have mentioned to you, adventuring is a thing of the past. To succeed in this world, you need to be insightful, careful, and mindful of the subtle connections between things. This time,” he added, looking directly at Trissiny and grinning, “I made you a hero in the eyes of the public. I prevented a certain schemer in the Universal Church from getting hooks into you. You fought me the whole way, and yet you ended up doing exactly as I wished at every step. Now, just imagine what would have happened if I had actually meant you harm!”

“Did you seriously come up here just to gloat?” Juniper exclaimed.

“Of course not.” Mogul tipped his hat to her. “Merely to demonstrate. I don’t mind acknowledging that I’m not smarter than you, kids—at least, not collectively. You lost this one because you were playing the wrong game. Learn to play the right one. And now!” Turning toward Ekoi’s pillar, he bowed deeply, sweeping off his hat to reveal a shiny bald head. “Professor, it has been both a high honor and an unmitigated pleasure to work with you.”

“That’s a lie,” she said, smiling benignly, “but since it should have been, I shall accept the compliment.”

“With that, I really must be off—I can only imagine the stress poor Professor Tellwyrn is under right now, allowing me to stand here without smiting me into a puddle.” He placed his hat back on his head, straightened it carefully with both hands, then winked at them. “See you ’round, kids.”

Shadows gathered, and then he was gone.

Professor Ekoi hopped nimbly down, landing on the grass as lightly as a cat. “What you just heard was wisdom, students. It was not necessarily truth. The difference is important. Think on these things—think deeply, and carefully. But later, yes? For now, off to class with you.”

She turned and strolled casually away, the white tip of her tail bobbing behind her. The entire class stared at her retreating back, too dumbfounded to speak.

With the exception of Trissiny, who was staring at the spot from which Embras Mogul had vanished, her sword dangling limply from her fingers.


Though the remaining members of Basra’s party had clustered around trying to command her attention immediately upon her return, she had brushed them off to join the commanders in a private conference in Fort Naveen. Schwartz and Ami had both been loudly disappointed when it was made clear that they were not invited to attend. Only Branwen had managed to include herself, and that apparently on the pure basis of rank, not because she had anything in particular to contribute. Darling’s companions, though they had been similarly glad to see him alive and well, had been more restrained. Or perhaps, less interested in being cooped up with stuffy military leaders.

In any case, it wasn’t as if dallying was an option; after a relatively short exchange, a messenger from the fort had arrived with word that a very important figure had just been teleported in.

“I am absolutely astonished,” said General Toman Panissar in the fort’s secure conference room, “that you managed to persuade that deranged thing to back down, Bishop Syrinx.”

“I’m somewhat astonished that your response to that deranged thing’s presence was to come here,” Darling said, lounging back in the chair he had commandeered by the fireplace. “Wouldn’t the Empire find itself in a bit of a pickle if the supreme commander of the Army were suddenly killed by a headhunter?”

“His Majesty is the supreme commander of the Army,” Panissar said, giving him an irritated look, “and that is why I didn’t come until the Azure Corps brought word that the headhunter had retreated.”

“The point remains,” Yrril said calmly, “it was an incredible feat of negotiation, Bishop. I must add my commendation.”

“Thank you, but ‘negotiation’ implies more rationality on the part of the participants,” Basra said with a faint smile. “I was manipulating, twisting the facts and lying through my teeth, and he was, not to put too fine a point on it, batshit crazy. As I said before going, that was a situation that called for a politician.”

“It was still incredibly brave to go out there,” Branwen said earnestly. “I mean, I think I can consider myself a politician as well, and I feel no shame that I didn’t volunteer.”

“I am, among other things, a soldier,” Basra said with a shrug. “It had to be done. That’s what soldiers do.”

“I could only dream of filling my ranks with men and women who would willingly face such a thing,” Panissar replied. “But the important question remains: how much time have you bought us?”

“That I can’t say exactly,” Basra said, her expression falling into a frown. “I managed to convince him that messing with the Sisterhood wasn’t in his best interests. That much I was confident I could do before I went out there; whatever that elf thinks of anything, the actual danger comes from the spirits inside him, and Athan’Khar and Viridill respected each other for a long time, even when they fought. It was the attack on Athan’Khar that made Viridill turn on the Empire, after all. As to what he’ll do next, or when, or where…” She shrugged fatalistically. “This is a temporary reprieve, make no mistake.”

“Then we’ve gained nothing,” Colonel Nintaumbi said, scowling.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Panissar disagreed. “Time to prepare makes all the difference—it’s exactly the thing we’ve never had before, with any other headhunter’s appearance. Bishop Syrinx saved a lot of good soliers today; that thing would have torn right through those armies. Now, I’ve had time to alert Lord Schraede and notify Imperial Intelligence.”

“Schraede?” Yrril asked, tilting her head.

“Commander of the Strike Corps,” Darling explained.

“Indeed,” Panissar said, nodding. “The entire Corps has been pulled from their duties and set on high alert. Considering the headhunter’s known ability to shadow-jump, we must assume his next move could occur anywhere. Strike teams are moving into position across the Empire, each accompanied by portal mages of the Azure Corps to stay in communication. As soon as he shows his face again, the entire Strike Corps will land on him. Not even a headhunter can contend with that. And besides,” he added more thoughtfully, “while it’s a long shot, his Majesty had the idea to seek aid from…our allies. If they are willing and prove able, we may be able to head this off before the creature can attack.”

“Allies?” Vaumann asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The Emperor prefers that that matter remain classified for now,” Panissar said briskly. “Continuing with that line of thought, this business of stirring up elementals shows far more planning ability than any past headhunter has displayed, not to mention skills beyond them.”

Basra and Darling exchanged a glance.

“Well,” Darling said, straightening up, “it turns out that wasn’t the headhunter’s doing.”

“Oh?” Nintaumbi said sharply.

“I did manage to have a short conversation with Khadizroth the Green while I was very briefly in the woods,” the Bishop continued. “He and Mary the Crow are still down there—after rescuing me from blundering across that crazy critter, they stayed behind to see what they could do about it. But yes, back on point, it turns out we were both right, Bas. Khadizroth was down there to help, and he was behind the elemental attacks.”

“What?” Nintaumbi exclaimed.

Basra nodded, though. “Yes…I can see it. In fact, that explains the one glaring flaw in my theory that was troubling me. The elemental summoner showed a knowledge of the history and social nature of Viridill and the Sisterhood; it was odd in the extreme that he might think they would step aside and let him invade Tiraas.”

“Exactly,” Darling agreed. “Between that and his ploy to get Mary’s attention through Ingvar… He wasn’t attacking Viridill, he was trying to rally the province’s defenders.”

“Why?” Panissar demanded, narrowing his eyes. “If he had forewarning of this creature’s intentions, he could have just come to us.”

“There’s a lot about Khadizroth I don’t know, or understand,” Darling admitted. “Today was my first actual encounter with him; what I’ve heard previously has been secondhand at best. We do know, however, that he’s not involved with the Conclave, despite their claim to represent every dragon in Imperial territory, and I’ve had reason to believe before now that he has worked with the Universal Church in some capacity. That’s odd behavior from any dragon but a gold. I highly doubt he trusts or likes the Empire. The Crow doesn’t, either, but neither of them go for the kind of indiscriminate slaughter a headhunter causes. They moved to save lives, even those of their declared enemy. But yes, Toman, you’re correct.” He nodded grimly. “These are powerful beings with their own agendas, who should never be trusted or taken for granted. I think we’ll be a long time yet unraveling the threads beneath all this.”

“If we even can,” Basra said fatalistically. “Unless we can capture either Mary the Crow or Khadizroth the Green, we’re unlikely to learn anything more. Whatever other truths are out there…they’re buried in Athan’Khar, now.”

“Then I think that sums up the situation,” Panissar said. “The crisis has passed, for now, but this is not over.”

“If you look far enough beneath the surface,” said Darling, “there are always strings connecting events to other events. I can’t find it in me to believe all this just happened.”

“Headhunters,” General Vaumann pointed out, “are essentially chaos and randomness personified. If anything, the lack of connection to a greater pattern has been the most difficult part of this whole mess. I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude there’s some broader purpose at play, here.”

“We may be able to learn something more, either from the dragon or the Crow, or possibly even the headhunter,” Panissar replied, “but on the whole, I am inclined to agree with Bishop Darling. Lord Vex is of the same mind.”

“You can add me to that list,” Basra stated. “There’s just too much going on for us to assume this is over. Even once the headhunter is destroyed… I think we had all better keep these events firmly in mind, and be watchful going forward.”

For a moment, her gaze met and held Darling’s, and then they both turned back to the group, expressions betraying nothing.

Positioned in the room’s most comfortable chair in the far corner, Branwen let the continuing discussion wash over her, studying each of her fellow Bishops in turn, and wearing the faintest little smile.

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