Tag Archives: Lorelin Reich

13 – 17

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

Jasmine allowed herself a sigh of relief as she set the empty canape tray down on the kitchen counter. None of the others were present; given the sudden availability of free “help,” Glory had not troubled to bring in staff for this event. Ami and Schwartz were circulating among the guests (with differing degrees of skill), but the lady of the house had not hesitated to put the Guild apprentices to work. That left Smythe to handle the cooking, a skill none of the rest of them possessed.

“Well, this hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d feared,” she said aloud, adjusting the collar of her still jacket. Actually the livery the Butler had found for them didn’t bother her; it reminded her of dress uniform. Layla and Darius, likewise, seemed to find it hilarious to be dressing as servants, but Tallie in particular was not enjoying the role. As usual, it was hard to tell what Ross thought.

“Do not mistake caution for virtue,” Smythe advised, glancing at her with a faint smile but not turning from the sauce he was stirring. He manned the stove without the benefit of an apron, but his uniform was, of course, spotless. Butlers did not make mistakes. “Many of those men and several of the women have fondled waitresses in other venues. No one invited to one of Tamisin Sharvineh’s events, however, would be foolish enough to mistreat working-class people in the home of a prominent Eserite.”

“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Jasmine said, frowning. “I just meant that I’m not as terrible at this as I could be. It’s my first time serving appetizers at a society party. Believe it or not,” she added dryly.

The Butler gave her another glance; his expression relaxed subtly, conveying the aspect of a calm smile without actually moving his lips. It was incredible what the man could communicate with his face. “A military upbringing confers many traits which are crucial in domestic service, notably punctuality, discretion, good posture, and the capacity to behave deferentially toward worthless people. Alone among your friends, I would gladly provide you references toward another position.”

“I have other plans, but I appreciate that,” she said with amusement. He nodded, turning back to his sauce. “Will you need me to take another tray?”

“Not yet. Your compatriots have that in hand. There is a rhythm and a balance to social events; madame prefers her hospitality to seem generous but not excessive. It is a subtle reminder to the powerful individuals present that on Eserion’s ground, even they may go hungry.”

“That’s slightly terrifying,” she observed. “But I’m amazed how you can be so aware of the situation from back here in the kitchen.”

“I am a Butler,” he explained. “It might be wise for you to circulate, however. Ostensibly to see if a guest needs anything, but more significantly to keep an eye on the house. With so many present, opportunities for mischief abound.”

Jasmine frowned. “You don’t think the conspirators would attempt something here, surely? Even the Svennish intelligence service didn’t dare attack this house.”

“The Svennish intelligence service are professionals. Your adversaries have thus far abducted Eserite apprentices practically from the Guild’s doorstep, attempted to unlawfully imprison the same under the very nose of the Sisterhood, and employed intrusive scrying spells on a witch sufficiently powerful to detect and counter them. Reckless or incompetent foes present their own dangers, Jasmine. They may be more easily beaten once confronted, but a person unburdened by strategic sense might attempt almost anything.”

“I see your point,” she said, then deliberately smoothed her expression. “I’ll make the rounds, then.”

Smythe shifted to give her another nod before going back to his stirring, and she slipped back out.

It was odd, she reflected while navigating the busy townhouse, how none of the guests appeared to notice her. When she was carrying food, they would select bites without acknowledging her, as though an unattended tray were floating past. Smythe had lectured the group about the invisibility of servants (she really hoped Tallie’s resentment toward nobles wasn’t already bubbling over), but to Jasmine’s mind the Guild’s doctrine had more to teach about this phenomenon. She wondered, while climbing the servant’s stairs in the back, whether this qualified as “don’t see” or “won’t see.” A bit of both, she decided; for the most part, ignoring servants simply seemed the thing to do, and they had no trouble detecting the canapes and cocktails. But then, after overhearing snippets of conversation, she was starting to suspect that some of these people didn’t regard those below their station as actual people.

And these were Glory’s guests? It was downright horrifying to imagine what must be going on in the houses of the city’s nobility. This party had done more to impart a good Eserite’s resentment of those in power than weeks of Lore’s lectures.

Apparently no one wanted anything, and most of the guests were fully occupied with one another, or clustered in the central salon where Glory was holding court; at any rate, she was not stopped on her way around the lower floor. She did pass Ross holding a tray of drinks, and received a blank-faced nod from him. Technically a breach of Smyth’s rules of servant conduct, but she wasn’t about to rat him out. Her rounds were uninterrupted until she passed the bathroom door on the second floor rear hallway, not far from the servant’s stairs.

It opened so abruptly she had to take a step back to avoid being struck, but did not swing wide. Layla squeezed through the crack and instantly pushed it shut behind her.

“Jasmine,” she hissed. “Thank the gods. That guest this is all about, Carruthers Treadwell? He’s a gnome, right?”

Jasmine tilted her head curiously. “Treadwell? Yes, Schwartz said he was.”

“A little paunchy?” Layla continued in a furious whisper, glancing surreptitiously about in exactly the way Style had told them not to do. “White hair, big mustache…?”

“That I can’t tell you; Glory’s been monopolizing him and I haven’t met the man yet. Apparently he didn’t want to come and she had to apply persuasion, and just winked when I asked what that…” Jasmine trailed off, suddenly frowning. “Why? Did he corner you in the bathroom or something? Layla, even if we need his help you do not have to put up with—”

Layla grabbed her arm, and Jasmine focused on her face, suddenly paying closer attention. The girl had always had an aristocrat’s composure even before the Guild’s coaching in the fine art of lying, but she was two shades paler than normal, her eyes wide and lips pressed into a stressed line. She glanced up and down the empty hall once more, then stepped aside, pulled the door open just a crack, and jerked her head urgently toward it.

Taking the hint, Jasmine shut her mouth and immediately slipped inside, making room for Layla to follow. By the time the younger girl had pulled the door shut behind them, she had already forgotten she was there.

The gnome sat against the wall next to the ornately cast porcelain toilet, eyes staring vacantly at a point near the ceiling. His black tuxedo jacket did not reveal stains, but the white shirt beneath was now more crimson than white, and the blood spreading from around him had rendered the carpet a total loss.

They stared in stunned silence before Layla managed to speak in a thin, tight voice.

“It’s surreal. The one thought I cannot get out of my head is it does not seem there could physically be that much blood inside a gnome. Isn’t that surreal?”

Jasmine blinked, swallowed, shook her head once, and straightened her spine. “Right. Right. Okay. Layla, get Glory. No!” She shook her head, closing her eyes momentarily in thought. “You can’t push through that crowd to get her attention, that’ll kick the beehive for sure. Go to the kitchen, get Smythe. He will get Glory and she’ll direct our next steps. I’ll stay here and make sure nobody else finds…this.”

“Right. Yes. I’m on my way.” Layla seemed energized at having direction, and grasped the door handle again.

“And be careful,” Jasmine added, turning to her suddenly. “This can’t possibly be a coincidence.”

“Yes, I know,” Layla said, drawing a deep breath. “Whoever’s after us is in this house, and now we know how far they’re willing to go. And that they can get around Glory’s wards. I’ll be quick.”

No sooner had they slipped back into the hall than Layla shot off toward the rear staircase at the fastest pace that would not draw attention. Jasmine planted herself in front of the door, falling automatically into parade rest.

Layla had only been gone a minute before a well-dressed man strolled up, drink in hand, and paused to give her an inquisitive look. “Excuse me?”

“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” she said with a deferential little smile. “This one is out of order.”


They went for the slope itself, Maureen stubbornly clinging to her basket of metal—she was not about to relinquish her haul to whatever nonsense this was—but made it only a few feet up the slope before the roar of the crowd abruptly ceased. Naturally, she didn’t slow. When fleeing a pursuer, it was a fatal mistake to sacrifice footing and control to look back; any gnome knew that.

Unfortunately, Chase Masterson had not had the benefit of a gnomish education.

He immediately skidded to a stop, turning in the process to see what made the change, which proved to be a more complex maneuver than he could handle while running up a steep slope. Or, knowing him, probably at all. He slipped on the grass, one ankle twisting out from under him, and went tumbling to the ground, immediately rolling downhill.

Even more unfortunately, a great towering human-sized lummox rolling down the mountain at her from barely more than her height ahead proved an obstacle Maureen could neither vault over nor dodge around. The impact bowled her right over, causing her to lose her grip finally. The basket went tumbling away, strewing scrap metal across the grass.

Being knocked down and rolled upon did not phase her, but for that, she punched him as hard as she could manage in whatever piece of the big oaf it was that currently blocked her vision.

“Ow! My kidney!” Chase scrambled away, but stopped before rising back to his feet, staring back down at the town. “…huh. What the hell’s got into them now?”

The erstwhile mob seemed to have abruptly lost its impetus. Suddenly, it had ceased to be a seething organism and had become a dozen or so prairie townspeople, standing around and staring at each other in confusion, as if unsure what they were doing or why. Silence gradually gave way to subdued muttering.

“Dunno,” Maureen grunted, hopping nimbly back to her feet. “Their problem, an’ I’m out before it becomes ours again. An’ you owe me a basket o’ metal bits, y’great clodhoppin’ galoot!”

“Oh, sure, blame me,” he said cheerfully, scrambling back upright and following her into a dash. They set off up the slope at an angle this time, heading for the stone stairs and their more certain footing. “Surely you don’t think I caused a mob?”

Maureen didn’t spare him a glance. “I dunno, Chase. Did you cause a mob?”

“Well, not that I know of!” he replied with an exuberant laugh. “But let’s face it, if there’s an angry mob and I’m in the same town, there’s at least even odds that somehow—”

“Just bloody well run!”


“Hey!” Fred protested as the shed door was yanked open, whirling to face the intruder. He had to lower his gaze; whoever had interrupted them was about half his height.

“What’s this? What’s all this, now?” wheezed a reedy little voice. “What’re y’all doin’ in my garden shed?”

“Your…” Fred stared, blinking in astonishment. The voice was an old man’s, one he didn’t immediately recognize. “Your… Mister, I think you’re a mite turned around.”

“Don’t you lecture me, sonny boy!” the intruder said shrilly, and Fred stumbled at a sharp jab to his thigh. A moment later he stumbled back again, throwing up a hand to protect his eyes against the brilliance that had suddenly erupted. The tiny old man lifted an old-fashioned oil lamp to illuminate the interior of the shed. Even without the hunch that bent him nearly double, he was short, his head entirely bald with incongruously huge tufts of white hair erupting from his ears, face so lost in wrinkles that his eyes were completely obscured beneath bushy brows. He jabbed at Fred again with a gnarled cane, though this time Fred held his ground; if he backed up any further he’d stumble over Lorelin, who was still seated in meditation. The old man prodded him once more, shaking his lamp aggressively. “This here’s my tool shed, an’ I don’t take kindly to trespassers, nosirree I don’t!”

“You said garden shed,” Fred said dumbly.

That was apparently the wrong answer, and earned him a whack on the hip. For such an apparently frail old fellow, he could swing that cane hard.

“Don’t you correct me, y’little hoodlum! I know my rights! Eighty-seventeen years I’ve worked this farm, an’ I know every inch of it! This here’s my garden toolshed, sure as my name’s Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee! My poor wife’s buried right behind it, an’ my dog too, Vidius rest both their souls! But not the cat, little bastard never did an honest day’s work in his furry life.”

Rubbing his thigh, Fred snuck a glance back at the priestess, who did not react to the invocation of her god, either. She was still concentrating; his job, after all, was to see she wasn’t interrupted. He shifted position, planting himself between the old man and Lorelin. “Now see here, mister, this here shed’s in an alley behind the Saloon, there ain’t no way…” He trailed off, frowning, then leaned forward. “Hang on. Do I know you? I ain’t never seen you ’round town…”

He really should have expected the ensuing whack to the skull, he reflected when he could think again. In hindsight, it was obvious. When his ears stopped ringing, he found he’d barely caught himself against the wall of the shed. That and…oh, no.

Lorelin grunted, almost sending Fred entirely to the ground in the process of crawling out from under him. The old man was still ranting, shaking his lantern at them.

“…never heard such disrespect, in my day, young ‘uns had a proper regard for their elders, yes sir they did! Why, when I fought off the elves with my trusty lightnin’ staff, even they wasn’t so rude! Elves got proper respect for their elders, yes they do! ‘Mr. McGee,’ they said t’me, ‘beggin’ yer pardon but we’re here to pillage yer farm, if y’please.’ An’ I served ’em tea before I shot ’em all in the face in alphabetical order with lightning, cos in my day we had us a little thing called manners!”

“I’m unsurprised you don’t recognize him, Mr. Carson,” Lorelin said, straightening and brushing off her shirt. “This creature is some kind of fairy.”

“You’re some kinda fairy!” McGee shouted, whacking Fred again. “I never heard o’ such—”

The light that blazed from behind Fred was by a wide margin more blinding than the lamp, and made him distinctly grateful he wasn’t looking in its direction. The pure golden glow of divine magic pulsed outward, and at its impact, Cletus Custer Indominus Boomerang McGee seemed to blow away as if made of dust, leaving behind a shape that made even less sense.

Fred locked eyes with the four-foot-tall raccoon dressed in robes for a moment. Then the creature had the temerity to giggle.

Then it darted forward, dropped to the ground, and bit him on the ankle.

Fred yelled and stumbled over backward, once again collapsing atop Lorelin. This time he bore them both fully to the ground, again breaking her concentration. The light vanished, plunging them once more into oppressive darkness.

“I’m sorry!” he stammered, scrambling off her and accidentally kicking her in the process. “Gods, I didn’t mean—”

“Don’t worry about it, Carson.” Her voice, oddly enough, seemed amused. “It seems this may not be as easy as we were expecting.”

“What the hell is that thing?!”

“I’ve no idea; fairies are over my head.” His vision was gradually adjusting; he could make out a shifting shadow as she altered her position. “But we have our mission, and it looks like yours is no longer the easy part. Do your best to keep him off me, if you please.”

She fell still, and silent, apparently sinking back into meditation. In the ensuing silence, Fred heaved himself upright, lurched over to the door, and swung it shut, pressing himself against it.

The distinct scrabbling of little clawed feet scampered across the roof above them, followed by a shrill and distinctly insane giggle. And then a whimper, which Fred only belatedly realized had been himself.


Whatever caused the lull lasted only moments, and then with a roar, the crowd was after them again.

“Bloody ‘ell, are they gaining?” Maureen protested just as they reached the stairs.

“Well, yeah, their legs alone are taller than you,” Chase pointed out, a little breathless. He had pulled ahead, and now paused, turning back to her. “I could’ve left you behind, but Tellwyrn would turn me into an entire new dumbass-leather wardrobe. Her words, not mine. Oh, fine, I guess I have to do everything around here.”

“Don’t you dare!” she squawked, smacking him and jumping away as he bent and reached for her.

“Ow! You pint-sized idjit, do you want to get torn apart by a mob? Come here!”

“You can barely carry yer own weight, the way yer gaspin’!” Maureen skittered wide, departing the staircase to circle around him outside his reach. The distraction had cost them; she chanced a glance down the mountain, and the inexplicably enraged humans were rapidly gaining.

“Dammit to hell and back in a handbasket,” he complained, huffing as he followed her and lacking the sense to shut up when he was clearly not in good enough shape to be running up mountains in the first place. “This better actually be my fault somehow! If I get killed and it’s not because of something I did, everybody I care about is gonna lose the pool I have going. Best thing I could leave for ’em, not like I’ve got anything worth putting in a will…”

Only when he trailed off for breath did she note the sound. She had never heard it so distantly before, but Maureen knew that sound.

“No,” she breathed.

The lights came into view ahead and above them, a sharp blue glow that descended the mountain right at them at a frightening speed, the noise growing louder. It was a hum both deep and shrill, that seemed to exist somewhere on the boundaries of hearing.

“What the fuck now?” Chase demanded. “I really hope that’s help. Is that help? It doesn’t look like help. Doesn’t sound like help, either…”

“No, no, no!” Maureen wailed, putting on a burst of speed. “No, she’s not ready yet! She’s not done! Aye, she runs but I’ve the whole stabilizing matrix to install!”

“Who’s not ready?” he demanded.

Then the thing drew close enough to come into focus.

It angled away from the staircase, swerving wide to avoid striking them, and immediately began wobbling, which caused Maureen to cry out in panic. No surprise; stabilizing matrix or no, there was nobody alive who had any practice at driving that thing at all, much less down a mountainside at breakneck speed.

Even without practice, Szith’s natural elven balance and agility made a world of difference. She turned the machine entirely sideways till it was sliding horizontally down the slope, its single wide wheel ripping up and spewing a veritable fountain of grass and sod. The arcane blue fairy lamps mounted to its round bronze shell flashed as their beams swept across the two astonished students, then the angle changed, leaving the vehicle backlit by the glow of the levitation charms holding its tapering tail aloft. Szith leaned upslope in its saddle, planting one booted foot on the ground and ripping up another streak of grass as she manually slowed and controlled the descent.

It was unfair, Maureen reflected, how elves were just naturally good at everything. She knew for a fact the drow had never even ridden a horse, much less a…well, she hadn’t quite got around to naming it yet.

The arcane rider’s approach made even the mob trail to a halt, gaping in astonishment. The wheeled vehicle wobbled violently as Szith fought for control, and for a horrifying moment Maureen was certain the whole thing was going to flip over and roll the rest of the way down the mountainside. The drow (and the levitation charm) prevailed, however, and the whine of its motive charms surged as she gave it a boost of power. More dirt flew and it surged back into motion, getting its wheel firmly under itself. Having slid all the way past them now, she angled it back uphill and came after them.

Szith actually leaned out of the saddle, holding one arm out and scooping Maureen up into her lap even as she squeezed the brakes, skidding to a halt. And nearly toppling over again as the vehicle wobbled and swerved in the process.

“Gently!” Maureen squawked. “Ya gotta guide ‘er gently, she’s not got the balance fer this stop-an’-go!”

“On!” Szith barked, pulling to a halt next to Chase.

“Oh, hell yes!” he crowed, vaulting onto the saddle behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Gently!” Maureen wailed, to no avail. Szith shifted her grip on the handlebars, relaxing the brakes and twisting the throttle forward, sending Marueen’s project into another skid as she poured far too much power far too fast into their acceleration, causing the gnome to regret showing her how the controls worked even though this was very likely saving her life.

But it stabilized quickly, and they shot upward far faster than Maureen had ever climbed this mountain, rhythmically bouncing as the big wheel crossed over the switchbacking paved path. In just moments, the University gates hove into view.

“I WANT ONE!” Chase bellowed, and Maureen really wished she was in a position to push him off.


“Gotcha,” Fedora whispered savagely, peering through the spyglass. Even in a form which lacked his wings and tail for balance, even perched at the top of the church’s steeple in the stiff prairie breeze, he held his stance easily, quite enjoying the dramatic way his trench coat billowed behind him. Up ahead and far below, a single figure in a black coat stood at a distance from both the town and the now-puzzled mob which had staggered to an impotent halt a scant few dozen yards up the mountain.

The Inspector ignored them as he had the pulse of divine light which had briefly illuminated the alley behind the Saloon. Maru had done his job, and nothing Lorelin Reich had in her bag of tricks was going to more than inconvenience the tanuki. For that matter, Fedora had probably better go collect him before her efforts made that game too much fun. Fairies tended to lose themselves in the hunt, and all the University needed right now was for Tellwyrn’s personal secretary to turn somebody into a tree stump.

“It was a good play,” he said aloud into the wind as the Hand of the Emperor shifted to glare at his defeated lynch mob, bringing his familiar profile into focus. “Create a ruckus, threaten students, bring Tellwyrn down here to intervene. If you did your job well enough, she might go overboard, give you an excuse to rile the town further. At the very least, you’d test her, see how she reacted to being poked. But you didn’t count on a dashing, demonic voice of reason to summon student help and persuade the boss lady to butt out, now didja. And now it is Fedora who has seen the face of the enemy! You lose this round, cupcake. What shall we play next?”

His triumphant grin vanished as the Hand of the Emperor abruptly turned to stare directly at him.

“No,” Fedora muttered, lowering the spyglass. It was dark, there was a good quarter of a mile between them. Even an elf could barely have made him out, perched on the steeple. “There’s no way…”

The Hand vanished momentarily from view as he suddenly sped back into the shadow of Last Rock’s buildings. Then he reappeared even more dramatically, having vaulted from the ground onto a rooftop. He proceeded onward, leaping from roof to roof faster than a jungle cat, and making straight for the church.

“Oh, shit.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

Advertisements

13 – 14

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

The hum filled the air, powerful enough to make her bones resonate sympathetically, but not loud enough to drown out the screams. She tore through the corridors, a prisoner behind her own eyes, unable even to scream as she carved away lives.

Palace guards tried to shoot her, but she effortlessly swatted lightning bolts aside with the burning shaft of light in her hand. It pulled her onward, hungry for revenge, and she slashed two soldiers into shrieking fragments with one wide swing. The smell of seared meat competed with the sharp tang of ozone in the air.

She did not stop, pulled forward by the sword. Cutting down servants, clerks, more guards, everyone who came within range of her swing. Faces of people she knew, frozen in horror and betrayal as she ended them. The sword didn’t care; it only needed blood.

Somehow, she had made it to the harem wing, and Isolde was ahead of her, fleeing in panic. Fruitlessly, of course; she ran the other consort down and impaled her through the heart from behind, and Isolde fell, screaming a question for which she had no answer.

Around the next corner, Empress Eleanora had barely a moment to give her a shocked look before the blade whipped through her body in a swift Z formation, reducing her to chunks, and still she pushed forward. Beyond the Empress was what the sword wanted.

Sharidan watched her come, wide-eyed. She could hear nothing but the powerful buzz of the weapon, but saw him mouth her name in disbelief as the blade came down.

The screams finally tore past whatever force silenced them, and everything vanished in confused panic. It took her a few seconds to understand where she was and stop shrieking. There was no angrily humming Infinite Order weapon; she was alone in a shabby little room in Puna Dara, entangled in the thin blanket that came with her rented cot, and one of her neighbors was pounding on the wall, shouting imprecations. Also, there was a frightened voice in her ear.

“Milanda! What happened? Are you all right? Say something!”

“Sorry, Walker,” she rasped, then paused, working her mouth to wet it a bit. “Just…a nightmare. I’m fine.”

Walker hesitated. “You’re…alone?”

Milanda paused in extricating herself from the blanket to give the room’s wall a wry look. “Now that the noise has stopped, nobody cares. I chose this neighborhood for a reason; the odd scream here and there won’t draw a response.”

“So these dreams are now determining your choice of where to stay?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Milanda muttered, rising and going to the basin of water to splash her face. “You know why I’m here; the Punaji will not work with Imperial agents on this. They won’t even allow me to work if they find me, and once I’ve been explicitly told to butt out by Rajakhan’s government, my presence becomes a serious provocation. Nobody will look for me here.”

It was a sign of Walker’s concern that she didn’t allow herself to be baited into a long-winded discussion of the situation. “You never did see that mental healer, did you?”

“I haven’t had time,” Milanda said shortly, “and I don’t really care to discuss it.”

“Too bad. Milanda, this is like trying to operate with a high fever or a broken leg. Mental injuries are not less serious because they’re invisible!”

“What time is it?” Milanda asked. Her third-floor shack of a room was luxurious by the neighborhood’s standards for having an attached toilet; a window was not among its amenities.

Walker hesitated, as if about to argue, but then answered the question. “Almost twenty hours. Actually, I was about to wake you anyway. Hope you got some rest; this may be a long night.”

“Why? What’s happened?” The slight tingle of alarm was enough to banish the last of the sleep cobwebs from her brain, and she paused in the middle of the floor, just listening.

“The Avatar wasn’t able to improve the data gain from the transcension field by much, so we’re operating at a very low sensor capacity, but you carrying that receiver in your ear around Puna Dara has helped. We’ve finished mapping the cave systems around the city and found more than one that lead to an obviously artificial shaft which terminates at Fabrication Plant One. One of these, an old mineshaft outside the city, has Infinite Order tech operating at low levels. We weren’t able to interface with any of it to see what it’s doing.”

“That’ll be where the Rust have their base, then,” Milanda said, running a hand over her hair. She probably looked like a mess, but that was a lesser consideration right now. “I’ll have a look before deciding our next steps. Point the way, Walker.”

“Wait,” Walker advised. “The rest of the news isn’t good. Our system was able to identify the technology the Rust cultists are using.”

“Really?” Milanda couldn’t restrain a grin of excited satisfaction. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, and that is the bad part,” Walker said grimly. “It came up as classified. Even the Avatar refused to discuss it. He was very apologetic, but said it’s an absolute rule. He can’t act against his programming.”

Milanda’s smile melted into a frown. “…I thought our whole rigged-up system was logged into the Order’s tech under Naiya’s credentials. Why would anything be classified to her?”

“There are several things that would be; technologies and information that the Order as a whole agreed never, ever to use, or even discuss. Long before their fall they had devolved to infighting of the worst kind. The only thing that brought them all to the table was a weapon or technology which scared them so much they were all willing to permanently give up access to it as long as it meant none of the others could have it either. And these are the people who were screwing around with time travel and solar system-sized spatial distortion fields.”

Milanda drew in a deep breath and blew it out slowly.

“Yeah,” Walker said in response to the sound.

“That’s really bad.”

“Potentially. It also raises very troubling questions. How did these yokels defeat the Infinite Order’s highest security? The Avatar in Fabrication Plant One would never have allowed anyone to access classified technology, and if they somehow disabled him, there should be no way to access it. Only an Avatar governing intelligence is able to extract sealed data from the computers.”

“Hm.” Milanda had been conducting a quick check while Walker was talking; she’d been napping in her clothes and already had everything she needed at hand. Stepping out of the room and shutting the door behind her, she lowered her voice. A young woman walking around muttering to herself was far from the strangest thing to happen in this neighborhood, but still. “Maybe they interfered with the Avatar somehow? Altered him?” The rickety exterior steps creaked woefully as she descended. Milanda had suspicions about the quality of carpentry that had been done after the last hurricane.

“That would almost have to be it, but I can’t see how. Remember that our altered system only works because Empress Theasia convinced the Avatar to help set it up that way in the first place. As nervous as the Order were about AI, they’re supposed to be impervious to tampering. Anyway, I wanted you to be aware of the level of danger you’re walking into—and repeat my objection that you shouldn’t be doing this alone.”

“This is the whole point,” Milanda muttered, tucking her chin down as she reached the street. Nobody was paying her any attention; dark had fallen, but the city was still lively at this hour. “The Archpope is trying to rally everybody under one banner to prevent the Throne from turning on him, and I don’t buy for a second that he didn’t knowingly penetrate our system in the first place. I’ll buy that the Rust are a serious threat, but I also don’t want to let him scapegoat them. If I can deal with this quietly, without involving the Punaji or the cults…”

“Let me remind you that I do not work for the Empire, nor does Akane or the Avatar or the dryads. You’re the only party here who has an opinion on the Silver Throne’s political goals. What matters to the rest of us is that some humans are messing with the most dangerous technology the Infinite Order possessed and have already shown themselves willing to weaponize it somehow.”

“Noted,” Milanda said with a sigh.

“And even that wasn’t why I wanted to wake you. While doing those scans, the system identified someone it recognized moving through Puna Dara, and according to what I’m tracking toward the Rust-infested mineshaft I just mentioned.”

Milanda frowned, picking up her pace, then came to a stop, realizing she didn’t know where she was going. “Which way, Walker? And who is it? I thought those sensors weren’t acute enough for that kind of detail at this range.”

“If you’re determined to stick your nose into this, head to the southern edge of the city and toward the mountains, and I’ll guide you further from there. And no, they generally aren’t, but the presence it picked up resonates very strongly through the specific transcension field it’s using. It identified them as Administrator Naiya with thirty percent certainty.”

“Wait… That means—”

“One of her avatars, yes,” Walker said. “This system knows what kitsune and valkyries are; it’s able to accept our girls as having Mother’s clearance specifically because it doesn’t recognize dryads as a specific, separate thing. That, in fact, is how it identifies them: as Naiya, but without complete certainty.”

Milanda ran a hand roughly over her face. “Omnu’s balls… Walker, I need a favor.”

“It’ll cost you,” Walker said solemnly.

She almost missed a step, then smiled ruefully and picked up her pace. “Uh huh, good one. Has the Emperor made his nightly visit yet?”

“I don’t know, Milanda. It’s not as if he comes down to my hidey-hole.”

“Right. Well…any way you can, please try to get in touch with Lord Vex.”

Walker hummed thoughtfully into the headset. “You understand the handicap we’re under with regard to getting anybody’s attention up top? Everyone down here either physically can’t get to the surface, or really, really shouldn’t.”

Milanda made a mental note to see about having a Hand of the Emperor stationed down there at all times. Waste of talent for what amounted to a pageboy’s job, but given how Hands were made, she doubted they’d begrudge the chance to loiter with the dryads. Akane, though, was another matter…

“I understand. Whatever you can do, please. It’s very unlikely that this is just some random dryad wandering through. That would have created a major incident by now.”

“I’ve already checked the Empire’s reports on dryad activity, which Sharidan so helpfully brought us last week,” Walker replied. “Banana roams up and down the Punaji Coast, but in two centuries she’s never shown the slightest interest in approaching human settlements. Seems more standoffish than most of her generation.”

“Right. Which leaves two possibilities that I’m aware of. Either this is Ash, who works for Lord Vex, in which case he is meddling in my mission without my knowledge and I am going to have words with him… Or, unfortunately more likely, the sophomore class of Last Rock U has showed up to…help.”

“If they have,” Walker suggested, “let them. You’re in over your head, Milanda. If you absolutely insist on not involving any of the cult assets that have been moving into the city, those kids at least don’t have political ties to the Empire.”

Milanda did not bother to address that erroneous statement. “I’m more concerned with their particular manner of help. They shot Sarasio to hell, almost started a riot in Tiraas and burned half of Veilgrad. I’m just going to hope I’ll have to yell at Vex—or maybe deal with a rogue dryad. The last thing I need right now is those meddling kids.”


Fred kept his head down, hurrying on through the gathering darkness toward his destination. Last Rock wasn’t as sleepy a town as it had been not long ago, but even so, it was notably less active than in daylight. Also dimmer, lacking an organized system of street lamps. The mayor had been talking about adding just such a thing, what with all the new construction going on. Privately, Fred somewhat resented these changes in his comfortable life, but at the same time, he knew that for the silliness it was. Progress happened. All a man could do was buckle down and do his best.

“All right there, Mr. Carson?”

He came to a stop a bit too abruptly, so much so that he staggered and nearly fell, but that beat the alternative. Even so, Maureen backed away in alarm, clutching her basket of metal parts and staring up at him with wide eyes.

“Omnu’s—I’m so sorry, missy!” Fred blurted, snatching off his hat. “I plumb wasn’t looking. Didn’t step on you, did I?”

“Not so much as a toenail, don’t you worry,” the gnome assured him, smiling now. “I’m pretty quick on me feet; even the tall folk who keep a lookout can’t always spot me in the dark. Really, though, are ye doin’ all right? Y’look a wee bit under th’weather.”

In fact, he was suddenly feeling even worse, but plastered on a smile, gamely trying to conceal his unease. “Oh, pardon me, miss. Not to worry, just rushin’ to finish off errands I should’ve managed earlier. One o’ those days, y’know the kind.”

“Aye, that I do,” she agreed, nodding.

“Can I, uh, offer you a hand?” he asked politely.

“Oh, that’s all right, it ain’t as heavy as it looks,” she said cheerfully. “Just pickin’ up some scrap fer me pet project. I won’t keep ye any longer. Sorry fer almost trippin’ ye!”

“My fault entirely, Miss Willowick,” he said, tipping his hat again. “You have a good evenin’, now.”

“Same t’you!”

Once he was past her, Fred allowed himself to cringe. That…that was absolutely the last thing he’d wanted to see…

His path took him through the back ways of the old town, along dark alleys that just barely deserved the name. As Last Rock grew, it was developing such features in truth, but in the oldest parts of the village the spaces between the backs of buildings had never been used for much; it had barely had enough streets for such alleys even to exist. Fred stepped carefully in the darkness, mindful of old rubbish tossed back here, and even despite all his efforts stumbled repeatedly over unseen obstacles, having to bite his lip to keep from cursing aloud.

He found the shed without difficulty, though. Annoyance and discomfort, but not difficulty. It had been there his whole life, the storage shed behind the Saloon, tucked into a little nook left by the odd shape of the alchemy shop which had been constructed closer to the mountain and the students who had always been its main custom. In Fred’s youth the Crete’s tool shed had been kept locked and chained shut, but Jonas Crete’s fixation on magical gizmos had resulted in him moving all his stuff into the convenience of extradimensional storage inside the Saloon itself. Thus, the shed was empty, and had been for years.

And tonight, was occupied.

He slipped inside and carefully pulled the door shut behind him, turning to face those present. It was even darker, obviously, though the slits between loose boards admitted faint moonlight, enough to discern two dim figures, and the faint glint of their eyes. Fred couldn’t tell which was which, and so bowed deeply in the general direction of the space between them. Obviously, this wasn’t going to get any better; those same gaps would light the whole shed up like a beacon if they ignited a lamp. All it would take was one person glancing down the alley to see that something improper was happening in the old Crete toolshed.

“Carson,” said the Hand of the Emperor’s voice from the figure to his left. “Well?”

Fred cleared his throat self-consciously, tugging his hat off and kneading it in both hands in front of his body. “Well, sir, like you said, I found a student. Um, students, that is, here in town. The Masterson boy is just across the other side of the square down there, around the A&W.” He paused; the other dark figure had shifted as if turning to stare at the Hand.

“And?” the Hand prompted in a sharper tone. “You said students. There are more?”

Fred swallowed against the lump in his throat. “Th-there’s one other. As I was comin’ to meet you I ran across young Miss Willowick, comin’ out of the blacksmith’s. I dunno what Chase is up to, but she’ll be headin’ up the mountain toward campus. Maureen’s a good girl.”

“Mm. Even better,” the Hand said quietly. “Then we have our target. Reich, focus your ability on the crowd in the Saloon; rile up everyone amenable and target them at the gnome.”

“Oh, but sir!” Fred burst out, forgetting himself. “She’s the sweetest little thing, ain’t never said boo to a goose! Nobody cares what happens to Chase, that boy’s a prick. Couldn’t we—”

“That is precisely the point,” the Hand said in a dangerous tone. “The more sympathetic the target, the stronger the reaction.”

“But—”

“Carson, I want you to keep two things in mind. First, I am always aware of details you are not, and my plans extend well beyond you; what may seem a cruel action from one perspective may lead to ultimately benign results. Second, I speak for the Emperor. I must balance complex needs and make hard choices—and, if need be, sacrifices for the greater good. Any harm that results will be on my head, not yours. You have served your Emperor well. Do it, Reich.”

“I will,” the voice of Lorelin Reich replied from the other dark figure, “but I want it noted that I am doing this under severe protest.”

The Hand spun on her so abruptly that Fred staggered back against the closed door.

“Why is it,” the Hand grated, “that just now, when I am finally moving to enact all the planning we have done, I find myself surrounded by disloyalty?”

Fred opened his mouth to protest that he wasn’t disloyal, immediately thought better of that, and shut it again, grateful his lapse had been invisible in the dark.

“I know my duty,” Reich replied, her tone perfectly calm as far as Fred could tell. “I will serve my Emperor’s will without hesitation. But I have just spent a great deal of time being reprimanded by my cult, by an Imperial Grand Magistrate, and by Imperial Intelligence that exerting this kind of influence on unsuspecting citizens is a repulsive abuse of my abilities. I took those lessons to heart, sir. I will obey, and trust that a greater good is being served. But for the record, I consider this action vile, and am in a better position than most to know.”

“Your objections have been noted,” the Hand snapped, “and in the future, you will register them after the moment to act is not rapidly escaping us. Do it, Reich! Thanks to you two, I now have to go pull other strings to slow down our quarry, or this will all be for nothing. Carson, make sure she’s not disturbed.”

He shoved brusquely past Fred, who almost literally fell over himself to get out of the way, then vanished through the door into the night.

They stood in frozen silence for two heartbeats before Reich spoke in a soft tone.

“Carson, I think we have a smilodon by the tail, here.”

“W-what’s a smilodon?” he stammered.

Her shadow shifted incrementally as she shook her head. “Something agile enough to kill you no matter where you grab it.”

With that cheerful observation, she sank down into a lotus position to concentrate her magic on whipping up maximum carnage among the people of Last Rock.


As the black-coated figure of the Hand slipped away down the alley, moving silently in the dimness and with none of the tripping that had plagued Fred, a much smaller, chubbier shape reared upright on the roof of the little shed. After watching, whiskers a-twitch, until the Hand had vanished into a nearby cellar, the raccoon scampered to the edge of the roof and then climbed down one corner of the shed, its claws inaudible against the old wood.

Moving with impressive speed despite its waddling gait, the raccoon skittered off the other way up the alley, then rounded a corner and across the backyard of a small house, around to its front porch. There, an old woman in a heavy shawl sat in a rocking chair, creaking steadily while knitting a pair of socks by the light of a single oil lamp. The raccoon scrambled up the porch rail and shuffled rapidly along till it stood right beside her.

Quite unlike the usual prairie-dweller’s response to the sudden presence of a disease-carrying wild animal, she leaned subtly toward it while the raccoon stood on its haunches, craning its neck forward to chitter softly in her ear.

Moments later, she dropped her knitting and rose from the chair with astounding speed and agility. Fortunately no one was in the nearby street to see as the incredibly spry granny vanished entirely from sight in the act of vaulting over the porch rail. There came a rush of air from the beat of invisible wings, and then a figure flickered into view high above, shooting upward toward the distant campus.

The raccoon waddled over to the oil lamp, neatly opened its shutter, and blew it out. In the ensuing darkness, it scampered back into the town, in the direction of the old shed behind the Saloon.

No one was close enough to hear it giggling.

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

13 – 13

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                               Next Chapter >

“I’m unaccustomed to scolding, but I have to say I am rather disappointed with the lot of you.”

Glory, indeed, did not look upset with them, but only pensive. Regardless, the assembled apprentices mostly lowered their eyes abashedly in response. Schwartz and Ami exchanged a glance, he uncertainly, she with an arched eyebrow.

Darius cleared his throat. “Yes, well…in our defense…”

“In your defense,” Glory said with a languid little smile, “you are neophyte Guild members, without personal sponsors or the likelihood of obtaining such, and your experiences have given you cause to be somewhat paranoid. Still, I should have thought the overarching lesson of your last round of troubles was that the Guild can be trusted to have your back when enemies are pursuing you. I seem to recall that was settled in part by several senior members who do not get along rallying together to defend you.”

“It’s a fair criticism,” Jasmine agreed with a sigh.

Schwartz cleared his throat. “Yes, well… I don’t know much about Guild philosophy, but as an outsider I have a hard time seeing where you’re coming from. I mean, every cult should have the assumption that members would support one another, right? And…the entire problem here is that some individuals are turning against their cults via some kind of…” He trailed off, looking flustered, as Glory turned an inquisitive gaze on him.

“If anything,” Ami observed, “the Guild’s practice of deliberately fostering competition, I should think, would make them more susceptible.”

“It’s about a statement of core philosophy,” Rasha said, in the quiet but controlled tone she had been cultivating. “Each religion is about something specific, something beyond a simple group identity. Whether members do or don’t back one another in a crisis is in service to that idea. In the case of the Thieves’ Guild, it’s about resisting corruption and overweening ambition. Glory’s right, but…so are you.”

“Listen to you,” Tallie said fondly, lightly touching Rasha’s hair. “Lecturing us on theology now! Apprenticeship’s done you a world of good.” She and Layla had perched on either side of Glory’s apprentice, who had taken a position in the center of the couch and sat with deliberately demure, almost regal posture. Rasha had changed a great deal in the month since moving out of the apprentice dormitory; every time they visited she seemed to be experimenting with a different style of clothing, which had ranged from androgynous to almost excessively feminine. Today’s was closer to the latter end of the spectrum, an embroidered robe cut and padded to suggest curved lines. Despite the obvious growth of her self-confidence, though, Rasha plainly felt more comfortable with the physical proximity of girls than the boys, a fact which Tallie and Layla in particular seemed to have immediately picked up on.

“Well, let’s not turn this into a theological discussion,” Glory advised, smiling wryly at them. “Those are tedious even when they don’t turn into arguments. What’s done is done and I’m not interested in recrimination; that’s Style’s job.”

“Omnu’s balls,” Darius groaned. “She’s gonna string us up by our feet…”

“She did tell us not to leave the Casino’s immediate environs, didn’t she?” Layla mused. “Oh, dear.”

“I suppose,” Glory continued thoughtfully, “I am partially to blame for your general predicament. Being too closely associated with well-established Guild members is, according to the scuttlebutt, largely why none of you have been approached by potential sponsorship despite several of you being very promising.”

“If by blame,” said Jasmine, “you refer to you helping save our lives, I assure you no one here objects.”

“Hear, hear,” Ross grunted.

“Still, that aspect of the situation is worth considering,” Glory said. She glanced at Rasha, and a knowing smile passed between them.

“Uh oh,” Darius accused. “You two are scheming something.”

“Not even subtly,” Rasha replied, smirking.

“For the time being,” Glory said, “let’s return to the matter at hand. I was not aware of a conspiracy such as you describe, but between Mr. Schwartz’s adventures within the Collegium and this Sister Ildrin trying to waylay you, it’s clear that some such thing must be afoot.”

“Well, that’s discouraging,” Tallie muttered. “You’re the most connected person we know…”

“People often misunderstand the nature of a conspiracy,” said Glory. “They are, by definition, things of short duration and limited membership; depending as they do upon secrecy, exposure becomes more inevitable the longer they go on and the more people become involved. Shadowy groups blamed for a wide range of problems are mostly a myth, but conspiracies happen all the time. By the same token, even someone such as myself, who takes great pains to be in on all the gossip, is unlikely to learn of such a group. More significantly, this means that while I can easily point you to a number of figures in various cults who are known to be Church sympathizers, it is very unlikely that most of them are involved.”

“Do you have…any ideas?” Jasmine asked hesitantly.

“Well, first of all,” Glory replied with that knowing little smile of hers, “you are off to a decent start by coming to me, because what we need to do is involve the Guild. Here we have a secretive group clearly trying to amass and abuse power; putting a stop to nonsense of this kind is exactly why the Guild exists.”

“Noted,” Ross said, nodding emphatically.

“Second,” their hostess continued, “we must pare down the prospects. I believe you had the idea to use your divinations, Mr. Schwartz?”

“Ah, yes,” he said, absently patting Meesie, who was being unusually quiet and docile while in Glory’s house. “My craft can help us narrow down prospects more than identify specific individuals, so if you have other thoughts…”

“In fact, I have,” she replied, settling back in her armchair in a manner subtly evocative of a queen upon her throne. “There are more mundane methods, of course. I gather that Mr. Schwartz and Miss Talaari have your trust in this matter, apprentices?”

“Ami has been very helpful to us,” Tallie said sweetly. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.”

Meesie began squeaking violently, and actually tumbled off Schwartz’s shoulder to the arm of his chair, where she rolled around on her back, squealing with mirth. He sighed; Ami just gave Tallie a cool sidelong look.

“Then in the meantime,” Glory said, “we will pursue established leads. Mr. Schwartz, how was it you first learned rumors of this embezzlement activity within your cult?”

He straightened up, frowning slightly. “Well… Sort of related to how I met these guys, actually. Bishop Throale was interested in making, um, less than official contacts within the Guild, like my friends here. He was securing some reagents that might be profitable in black market dealings to try to… Actually maybe I wasn’t supposed to mention that.” He swallowed, glancing over at the windows. Ami rolled her eyes.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Glory said pleasantly. “Go on?”

“Well, so, because of that, he and I were more involved in the Collegium’s reagent stocks than either of us would normally be and he mentioned some things seemed to be going missing. Records not adding up with inventory, boring stuff like that. The Bishop didn’t seem concerned but I went and double-checked and yes, there were some enchanting supplies gone…the specific ones used for bladed weapon and armor maintenance charms. Stuff you don’t see much anymore, only the Silver Legions use them in any quantity. I mentioned it to them,” he gestured at the apprentices, “and Jasmine had apparently…well, there we’re past my part in it, so, y’know.”

“Any specifics?” Glory asked, daintily crossing her legs. “Remember, we are looking for names.”

Schwartz frowned and chewed his lip while Meesie climbed back up his sleeve to her perch. “Um. Well, Suvi Mosvedhi is in charge of the magical storehouses overall. She has lots of people working under her and I hardly know any of them. Let’s see… Carruthers Treadwell was the specific fellow who coordinated with the Avenists on exchanges…”

“Carruthers Treadwell.” Glory leaned forward suddenly, grinning. “Who, just yesterday, was abruptly pulled from his duties by the Chancellor of the Collegium for reasons which are not known outside its walls. It seems we have our in.”

“Who’s this guy?” Ross asked. “And how’re we gonna…in him?”

“Simple,” Glory said with a satisfied smirk. “I am having a little soiree tonight, as I do most evenings. I shall simply ensure that he is present. As will be the lot of you.”

“Um.” Schwartz hesitantly raised a hand. “Carruthers is a bit of a houseplant. I’ve never heard of him attending a social event voluntarily.”

“He has never had Tamisin Sharvineh desire his presence,” she said glibly. “It’s as good as done.”

“Meanwhile,” Rasha added, “that gives us only a few hours to get you lot into some suitable clothes.”

“Ooh!” Layla and Ami both straightened up with sudden smiles.

Jasmine, on the other hand, went a shade paler. “Oh, hell.”


It was a much truncated group which went to meet the Guild’s emissary. Only the queen and Principia had been requested, but Ruda inserted herself into the party; her mother expressed approval at this, while Principia wisely kept her thoughts to herself.

The seneschal conducted them to the Rock’s throne room, where their guest had been asked to wait. It was smaller and generally less grandiose than its counterpart in Tiraas, its stone walls decorated only with banners and old weapons. Even the throne was little more than a large wooden chair, made from the timbers of the ship once captained by a long-ago Punaji king. Narrow windows along one side of the room admitted afternoon sunlight, augmented by strategically placed modern fairy lamps.

There were few seats in the room, just benches along the walls, but their guest had been led to one of these. A small folding table had been brought and laid out with tea and a plate of small sandwiches and pastries, with a servant attending closely. This likely wasn’t usual policy for guests in the throne room, but one glance at Quinn Lagrande banished any question as to its necessity.

Her lined face and pale gray hair revealed her advanced age even without the heavy stoop she suffered despite being seated. Incongruously, she was dressed like a frontier adventurer, with an open-collared shirt and trousers tucked into heavy boots. A wide leather belt around her waist carried a holstered wand and a dagger. At their arrival, Lagrande braced herself with one hand on a hickory cane and stood with a small grunt of effort.

“There you are,” she said before any of them could speak, her voice scratchy with age but still strong. “I gather I interrupted something important?”

“Yes,” Anjal replied without explanation. “I am Anjal Punaji, and this is my daughter, Zaruda. I believe you know Principia Locke.”

“Mm hm,” Lagrande said, giving the elf a wry look. “Oh, we go way back. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t kneel, your Majesty. The spirit is willing, but the spine and knees lack respect for authority.”

“I’d feel obligated to stop you if you tried,” Anjal said, smiling with genuine amusement. “And if you must be formal, I prefer Captain to Majesty. I damn well earned that one. What can we do for you?”

“At issue here is what we can do for you,” the old woman replied, shifting her focus to Principia. “Keys, where the hell have you been? You’ve been in town almost two days and for some damned reason we had to seek you out. Taking in the sights?”

“I’ve seen all the sights long ago, and climb down outta my nose, Heckle,” Principia retorted, folding her arms. “You were on the agenda, trust me. My squad was just heading your way when this most admirable young lady press-ganged us.” She cocked a thumb at Ruda, who tipped her hat.

“Yep, I’ll take the blame for that one. When Principia Locke shows up in town, I figured it was best to put a boot on her neck before the situation got even worse. Sounds like you know what I mean.”

“Heh.” Lagrande grinned at her. To judge by their yellowed state, they were all her original teeth. “That’s not a ‘general principles’ action toward a veteran member of the Thieves’ Guild. What’d she do to you?”

“I think you had something to tell us?” Principia said irritably.

“Nothing major, she just tried to drug me that one time.”

“You tried to drug a member of the Punaji royal family?” Lagrande turned an incredulous stare on Principia. “How in the hell has nobody killed you yet, Keys?”

“Oh, that’s rich. Look who’s asking who how she’s still alive—”

“HEY.” Anjal was accustomed to belting orders on deck in a storm; at that range she could be positively deafening. “If you Eserites wanted to put on a minstrel show, there are plenty of street corners not being preached on right now. Did you come here for a reason other than that, Lagrande?”

“Of course, your…Captain. Humble apologies.” Far from looking contrite, the old woman grinned unabashedly. “Yes, you’re right. We do have important information, which was being held for Keys, here, but then the Princess and her friends picked her up and we decided this had better not wait. To begin with, for the benefit of the young and the foreign in this audience, are you aware of just why so many of the Rust’s upper echelons have artificial limbs?”

“Because they’ve got crazy advanced magic and that’s a convenient way of showing it off?” Ruda suggested.

“True.” Lagrande nodded. “That’s definitely part of their motivation. I guess I should have asked why they have such a need for them.”

“Most of them are the Broken,” Anjal said in a much quieter tone. Principia gave her a neutral look, but Ruda frowned in open confusion. “This was well before your time, Zari, and be thankful for that. It used to be common practice for beggars on the docks to use children to mooch from the merchants. Children are inherently more sympathetic, and they sometimes made them more so by deliberately maiming them. Cutting out eyes, hacking off limbs.”

“Holy fuck,” Ruda whispered.

Anjal clenched her jaw. “Your grandfather addressed this problem by creatively punishing anyone he caught doing it, which of course did not help. It was thanks to your father’s early actions that no one in your generation has had to suffer this.”

“What actions?” she asked. “I mean, if…”

“That’s the thing about governing,” the queen said with a sigh. “What works is rarely spectacular or romantic. If you want to put a stop to begging, you have to make sure that people have better things to do, and that doing them is worth their time. He did increase patrols on the docks, but more importantly he instituted economic reforms, created jobs, aggressively courted the dwarves and Narisians to engage in maritime trade through Puna Dara… All the boring shit that actually improves people’s lives. Such reforms are often hard to push through because whenever there has been an impoverished underclass for a long time, there are wise old men who think the problem with the poor is that they’re lazy and just won’t be helped.” She curled her lip contemptuously. “Arrogant bullshit, unworthy of a Punaji. People inherently want to work. We all have a need to create, to act, to contribute; the single most important thing for human happiness is taking responsibility for one’s own life. If society lets people do this, they’ll do their part. There will always be a few layabouts and general assholes, but they are a bare minority.”

“Our underboss is one of the Broken,” Lagrande added. “Fang gets around on one leg and one arm. He was never approached, though. The Rust are strategic; like all fringe movements they started by targeting the vulnerable, which didn’t include Eserites. But I didn’t bring it up just to make conversation. How’d you like to know where their secret headquarters is?”

Anjal scowled. “Is that all you came here for? They operate out of a warehouse on the docks. It’s not a secret.”

“Wrong!” Lagrande said gleefully, thumping her cane on the floor for emphasis. “That’s where they openly operate from, and there’s nothing in there but religious wacko paraphernalia. Places to keep and feed people, some administrative apparatus. But their true home, that’s all tied in with the sad, stupid story of the Broken. They’ve got a place in the old mines, and that has to be where they keep the crazy shit that makes their crazy magic work. Does the kid need a refresher on this as well?”

“The kid has a name,” Ruda retorted.

“Yes, a shiny new one,” said Anjal, giving her a disgruntled look. “But she’s right, Zari. When Broken kids got too old to be cute anymore, a lot of them were sent to work the mines in the mountains outside the city.”

“Whoah, what mines?” Ruda demanded, frowning. “I was always told we didn’t do much mining.”

“We don’t, but not because we can’t. There are minerals in those mountains; copper, mostly, some iron and gems. But Puna Dara has always done more business in trade than production, and we’ve prospered especially in the last ten years by cornering the market on the Five Kingdoms’ maritime trade. Your father managed that, in part, by closing down our domestic mining operations and buying minerals from the dwarves. After what the treaty between Tiraas and Tar’naris did to them, that bought enormous goodwill. So.” She turned a thoughtful gaze on Lagrande. “There are mines and quarries around Puna Dara, and nearly all are abandoned. And, not being idiots, we regularly have them patrolled and searched.”

“In a pretty cursory fashion,” Lagrande agreed, thumping her cane again. “A mine’s a great place to hide stuff.”

“How is it you know this, when the Punaji don’t?” Principia asked.

“Same way we knew you’d spent your time in Puna Dara visiting the Avenists, creeping on the street preachers, and hounding after rumors in dockside bars instead of coming to us,” Lagrand replied acidly. “The Thieves’ Guild in this city is six old grayhairs and two very bored apprentices led by a cripple. The last damn thing we’re about to do is climb up into the mountains our damn selves and then climb down into some godforsaken mineshaft after insane cultists who wield impossible magics. But what we can do is know things.” She grinned fiendishly. “Even after you sent Peepers off to the Empire—and by the way, asshole, thank you so much—we are connected in this city and the bulk of what we do is listening and watching. Anybody hears a rumor that even might be valuable to anybody else, they bring it to the Guild.”

“That’s true,” Anjal agreed, somewhat sourly. “They usually know interesting things well before the Crown does.”

“So we weren’t about to go after them,” Lagrande continued. “And we specifically have not shared this information with the Avenists or the Punaji government after what happened to the Fourth Silver Legion. Because they’d have no choice but to take action, and that would’ve ended…pretty damn badly. But!” The old woman grinned savagely and thumped her cane for emphasis. “Speaking of things we know, now it seems you’ve got two paladins, a dryad, and the biggest, meanest demon to walk the earth in a thousand years. And that’s another matter, isn’t it?”


Justinian always made time in his schedule to think; quite apart from the necessity of his meditations in keeping his mind calm and alert under the pressure of his duties, he could not function without the ability to carefully lay plans. Reacting swiftly to events as they developed was fine and essential, but a man without his own strategies, attentively crafted, was at the mercy of fortune.

Even so, he cherished the few extra opportunities that came up to lose himself in thought. Time spent navigating the labyrinth deep under the Cathedral, for example… Or situations like this one, in which he could do nothing but wait.

He sat before the magic mirror, watching mist swirl meaninglessly within it, and considering the current situation.

Events in Puna Dara were developing faster than he had intended. Once again, Tellwyrn butting in had created this difficulty, though this time it was not an unforeseen development. Princess Zaruda’s intervention had always been a possibility, and while bringing her friends along was the worst case scenario, he had already mulled what to do in this event. Now, it seemed they might be on a course to demolish the Rust far too soon. He needed that to be a struggle; the allied forces of the Church, the Empire, the Punaji and the cults had to be bonded through shared adversity. That also meant the Rust had to be presented as a very credible threat. Their attack on the Silver Legions had done that, but he knew what it had cost them, and that those young titans would cleave through their ranks far too easily if allowed. They must endure long enough for all their enemies to unite against them. He had his current operation in Tiraas working to secure his good name with the Silver Throne, but after the incident with Rector’s machine there was far too much damage there for him to trust a single ploy to fix it.

Could he distract them? Unlikely, and risky. Anything else he did in Puna Dara could create complications that would threaten his own interests. If he could somehow peel the students, or at least a few of them—maybe even just one—away from the city for a while, that might suffice.

Even alone in his office, he maintained strict control, and so did not smile. But the Archpope permitted himself a slight softening of his expression as his agile mind seized upon a solution. An elegant one, which worked neatly alongside the matter to which he was now attending. It would cost him nothing but a little extra effort…

As if summoned by the shift in his thoughts, the mirror cleared, revealing the worried face of Lorelin Reich.

“Your Holiness,” she said in clear relief, bowing her head. “Thank you so much for this. I know it must be an imposition.”

“Lorelin,” he said with a gracious smile. “You have earned my trust many times over; if you send word that we must speak, I can only assume that it is so. What troubles you, child? I hope you are not endangering your good name with the Empire.”

“I fear…I may be,” she said, frowning, and Justinian took note of the open worry in her expression. A model Vidian, she was adept at concealing her true thoughts, usually. “Your Holiness… I am not working directly with Imperial Intelligence. The told me they’d call on me when I was needed, and when a Hand of the Emperor summoned me, I assumed that was it. But…” The priestess swallowed heavily. “I… This must sound crazy, I realize, but…I think this man is insane.”

Justinian put on an expression of deep concern and leaned forward, revealing none of his satisfaction. This business, at least, was proceeding according to plan and on schedule. “In what way?”

“At first I thought his machinations seemed inept because I didn’t know all the details,” she said, “but more and more… He seems to be trying to provoke a confrontation with Tellwyrn which there is no possible way he can win. I can’t imagine the Empire would do something so reckless, when they’ve handled her so carefully since the last Empress’s reign. And…it’s his personal conduct, your Holiness. I am accustomed to schemers, but I have been around mentally unstable people. This man is the latter. But I know that’s impossible. He is a Hand of the Emperor.”

Justinian drew in a deep breath, and let it out very slowly. “I…am extremely glad you have come to me with this, Lorelin. All right…what I am about to tell you must be strictly confidential. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely, your Holiness,” she replied, nodding eagerly.

“There was recently a problem with the Hands of the Emperor,” he stated. “The details don’t concern you and may be dangerous to know. What is important is that one of them may have gone rogue at the end of it.”

The color drained from her face.

“This is what you must do, Lorelin,” Justinian said earnestly. “Contact your handlers at Imperial Intelligence, and tell them what you just told me.”

“But…” The poor woman was clearly at her wit’s end; she forgot herself so far as to bite her lip. “Your Holiness, the Hand specifically instructed me to avoid contact with any other government entity.”

“Then,” Justinian said gently, “he is forcing you to violate the terms of parole. You were to remain in touch with Intelligence; by keeping you in communications silence in the last place they would look for you, he is hiding you from them. Tell them, Lorelin, exactly what you just did. You thought you were obeying the Silver Throne, but this man is dangerously unstable and may be creating instability in the Empire itself, which is what will result if a Hand of the Emperor overtly antagonizes Tellwyrn. She has, in fact, been working with Intelligence. I see little chance that they would want to move against her this way. Contact them in good faith and explain, and you will not only be upholding the terms of your plea bargain, you just might help save the Empire from one of its most immediate threats.”

Now it was she who inhaled and exhaled deeply, but nodded.

“What is he doing, exactly?”

“He’s stirring up the townspeople against Tellwyrn,” she said, frowning. “Which wouldn’t alarm me much as far as it goes, but with all the new construction and activity in Last Rock, plus the big cluster of foreign operatives up on the mountain itself… He doesn’t tell me everything, your Holiness, not by far. I know he has other assets. I don’t know what they might do, or can.”

Justinian nodded. “Then you will need to slow him down. Perhaps assist Tellwyrn in dealing with him.”

“I’m positive that he’ll know if I try to approach her.”

“I believe you,” he said with a reassuring smile. “Do not be so overt. I believe I can help you with this, Lorelin; you know as well as I that clever people can be shockingly easy to manipulate into error. It is often as simple as placing the right piece of information for the right person to find, and letting the rest of the dominoes fall. Once you tell this Hand who the Sleeper is, I suspect this whole matter may work itself out.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

13 – 4

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                Next Chapter >

Captain Leingardt wasn’t destined for a career in politics; her expression clearly showed the normal reaction of a military officer to having her post invaded by a ranking politician. She managed to speak politely, however.

“Your Grace, what an unexpected…surprise. To what do we owe this…honor?”

The look Syrinx gave her was openly amused, but the Bishop chose not to make anything of it. “Just doing my job, Captain. No need to worry, I mean to do it as quickly as possible and be out of your hair, taking all this baggage with me. So! It seems we have a ‘she said, they said’ dilemma here.” She turned her gaze briefly on Sister Falaridjad, showing the tips of her teeth in a strange little grin, before shifting her focus to the apprentices. “As it happens, I am personally acquainted with all the players in this little drama, and I can attest from experience that these kids are sneaky, unscrupulous troublemakers who evince no care for the repercussions of their antics, nor regard for anyone outside their immediate circle.”

“Now, see here,” Layla began, but Syrinx simply raised her voice and continued.

“And, that being the case, if this were nothing but their word against Ildrin Falaridjad’s, I would still be more inclined to believe them.”

“This is none of your business, Syrinx,” Falaridjad said, practically vibrating with tension.

“As usual, Ildrin, you are cataclysmically wrong,” the Bishop replied, granting her a syrupy smile. “I have spent my morning dealing with this mess in particular—because that is literally my job. We have a tangle of Eserites and Salyrites having created a mess in an Avenist temple, precisely the kind of interfaith issue the Bishops exist to address. As such, Ildrin, I happen to know exactly what transpired on every level of this.” She turned to Captain Leingardt, who was now watching all this unfold without expression. “I have the full reports on the incident at the temple, and no, there was no assault. Of any kind. The only remotely physical altercation was between these two.” She pointed at Jasmine and Layla. “And since they are clearly in league, I rather doubt either intends to press any sort of charge. Further, I made it here so rapidly on their heels because Ildrin, showing her customary lack of basic sense, saw fit to forcibly remove three apprentices of the Thieves’ Guild from the region they most heavily monitor, and was followed all the way here by enforcers.”

Ildrin actually bared her teeth. “That doesn’t explain why you—”

“You will be quiet or you will be punched quiet,” Basra said curtly.

“That is crossing a line, your Grace,” the Captain interjected.

Basra ignored this, continuing. “To answer the question, I was nearby, in the process of being updated by the Eserite Bishop on these very events, and learning the most fascinating things. For example: this was an unsanctioned operation, and Boss Tricks is furious at these little know-nothings for sticking their fingers where they had no business being. However they did, no doubt by accident, manage to accomplish something worthwhile. You see, Captain, the goods they stole were voluntarily returned to the Collegium, along with stolen documentation from both the Salyrite and Avenist sides of some kind of interfaith embezzlement scheme.” She shifted her gaze back to Ildrin, and grinned broadly. “Copies also found their way to Commander Rouvad. And guess whose name featured prominently in this report!”

Slowly, Captain Leingardt turned to regard Sister Falaridjad, and raised one eyebrow. Ildrin herself held silent, glaring at Basra with her fists clenched. The four Legionnaires and three apprentices kept perfectly still, watching all this unfold with wide eyes.

“Well, that was unquestionably a robbery,” Syrinx said, turning back to the Captain. “But it seems their intentions were good, no harm was ultimately done, and in fact both the Sisterhood and the Collegium have benefited. At this point, my own concern is to soothe the ruffled feathers these brats have caused by acting out of line. It’s your call, of course, Captain, but in my official capacity as Bishop I highly recommend, and ask, that you leave the disciplining here to be handled internally by the Thieves’ Guild.”

“You don’t even have to ask, your Grace,” Leingardt replied, nodding. “I reached the same conclusion before you were done explaining. You three can go.” Narrowing her eyes, she looked at Falaridjad again. “I suppose I ought to have this one taken into custody, considering…”

The priestess folded her arms defiantly, but addressed herself to Syrinx, not Leingradt. “You have no cause or authority to do such a thing. I promise you would regret the attempt.”

“The testimony from someone of Bishop Syrinx’s rank, especially backed by documents, is adequate probable cause,” Jasmine said.

The Bishop, priestess, and Captain all turned to glare at her.

“Well,” Tallie drawled, stuffing her hands in her pockets, “as people keep pointing out, if there’s one thing we Eserites understand, it’s the process of getting arrested.”

“You lot were told to shove off,” Syrinx said curtly. “Be about it. And as for you.” She fixed another stare on Ildrin, again wearing a small, predatory grin. “Your last trick involved burglarizing a temple of Izara, nearly killing two Bishops, and almost starting a war. I can’t fathom how your buddies at the Universal Church managed to get you out of that one, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t a lot of strings left for them to pull. So I’ll tell you what, Ildrin, for old time’s sake.” She took one step closer; Ildrin stood her ground, fists actually quivering with repressed fury now. “How much trouble you decide to cause me from here out will determine whether I lean on the High Commander with every ounce of influence I have to throw the book at you…” She took another step, her smile widening. “…or lean on her to cut you loose entirely, and notify the Guild you were trying to frame and abduct some of their apprentices. Since you have so little regard for Avei’s justice, perhaps you would find a taste of Eserion’s version…enlightening.”

“You,” Ildrin said tensely, “are a monster.”

Syrinx winked. “And you are just pathetic, Falaridjad. If there’s any justice in the world, I will be there when you learn how very sad you truly are.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Captain Leingardt interjected. “I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but it’s clearly more personal than this business warrants. Your Grace, I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring political vendettas into my post.”

“For the record, I’m clearly not the one who brought anything here,” Basra said with a placid smile, “but your point is taken. Your cooperation is much appreciated, Captain Leingardt. I’ll leave you to your business.”

She nodded politely to the Captain, turned her back on Falaridjad, and strolled over to the apprentices, where she paused.

“Well? Planning to stand around in here all day?” The Bishop arched an eyebrow at them, then continued on to the doors.

They watched her go, then looked at each other, then back at the rest. Leingardt was already in the process of upbraiding Falaridjad’s four escorting Legionnaires while the priestess glared venom at them. In unspoken unison, they turned and hurried to the doors.

Bishop Syrinx was waiting for them right outside, her breath misting softly in the winter air.

“So! After being hounded very nearly to death by the Svennish secret service, the next thing you decided to do was body-slam your way into dicey interfaith politics you clearly don’t understand. Interesting choice.”

“Hardly the next thing,” Tallie protested. “That was over a month ago.”

“Oh, yes, a whole month.” Syrinx raised an eyebrow. “You kids aren’t the most luminous beacons in the firmament, are you? Well, if for some reason you insist on making enemies, Ildrin Falaridjad is a good place to start. She’s devious, pathologically self-involved, and also a fumbling imbecile.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Tallie said dryly, “and the save.”

“If I’d done you a favor you’d better believe I would hold it over you, but it’s as I said: all this is no more or less than my job. Presumptuous neophytes meddling where they shouldn’t make it more interesting, but smoothing over incidents like this is why the cults bother to have Bishops and the Universal Church itself. Now if you will excuse me, I have to go home and supervise the decorators.” She gave Jasmine in particular a vulpine smile. “There was a small fire at my house recently, with the upshot that I’m getting it completely redone for free. Well, free to me, I suppose technically it’s being paid for by everyone who does business with Tallithi Mutual. A Vernisite could explain insurance in detail; I just sign the forms. You know, the police said there were signs of arson. Clearly not by anyone who had thought through the ramifications of that action.”

“Oh, why ever would anyone want to set you on fire, your Grace?” Layla asked sweetly.

Basra grinned at her. “Perhaps the sort of person I could easily make wait to speak with me simply by telling them to leave? I’m so accustomed to dealing with the sharks of Tiraas’s politics; once in a while it’s downright refreshing to toy with presumptuous guppies.”

She let the silence hang for a moment while all three stared at her, Tallie with her mouth slightly open.

“I suggest you kids cast your lines more carefully in the future,” Syrinx finally said, in a flat tone. “You are not ready to sail these waters. Listen to your teachers, and leave the politics to those who understand them.”

With that, and a final superciliously arched eyebrow, she turned and strolled away up the street, tucking her hands in the pockets of her fur-lined coat.

“What a singularly unpleasant woman,” Layla observed, unconsciously gripping her shopping bag in front of herself.

“Yeah,” Tallie agreed, nodding. “She’s kind of awesome, though.”

Jasmine stared after the Bishop in silence, her mouth pressed into a thin line.


“Hey, Mr. Carson! What’d you bring us?”

“Nothin’ more interesting than usual, Hildred,” Fred said, pausing to give her a smile. “Now, don’t go pressin’ me for special treatment. You know how Mrs. Oak likes to keep it a surprise.”

She was clearly going somewhere, carrying an armful of books, and so Fred wasn’t bothered when she just laughed and continued on her way. He went back to his, pushing the empty cart through the gate.

Well, the old gate.

He didn’t stop himself from peering around curiously as he continued on down the path, this stretch of which was longer than it used to be. The land shaping for the campus extension had been finished two weeks ago, rendering this section of the mountain’s slope into terraces like the old campus, and now the main thoroughfare zigzagged a bit, navigating ramps, rather than being the straight staircase that ran down the rest of the mountain. Fred always took the long, back-and-forth path when pushing his full produce cart uphill, but on the way down it was light enough to just drag down the stairs. Thanks to the levitation charms which made it easy for a single person to haul, it didn’t even bounce much on the steps. For the Saturday weekly delivery, of course, he brought the much larger mule cart up, but the daily shipment of fresh produce to the kitchens required only his magically lightened push cart.

Construction had begun on the buildings just a week ago, and there were a few in partially finished states, interspersed around twice their number of still-vacant lots. Fred had actually seen Tellwyrn herself working on one in passing, summoning enormous slabs of marble apparently from thin air and levitating them into place. There were now a few people around in the near distance, hunching over diagram-laden tables rather than doing any construction work. Apparently the archmage chose to tend to that part herself, but just because she could conjure and move parts of buildings with just her big brain did not mean she was qualified to design them, or so Fred had gleaned from the gossip on campus. Architects and surveyors were at work planning the new additions, still, as well as extra magical types who would be working on the additional protections the new research facilities needed. Fred hadn’t approached them personally, but had heard they included both Salyrites from the Sapphire College and secular mages from the Wizard’s Guild, and even that snooty fellow from Syralon who figured himself too good to do business in Last Rock.

Only the new exterior wall was finished, and notably was a lot more serious than the old one—taller, thicker, with a hefty manned gatehouse and actual battlements. As usual, Fred silently chewed on the implications of this as he passed through the open gates, noting the man asleep at the guard post, slumped in his chair with a hat tugged down over his eyes.

“AH HAH!” Rook bellowed suddenly, bounding upright, and Fred yelped and shied away, losing his grip on the cart.

“Omnu’s balls, Tom! What the hell?!”

“Thought I was sleeping, didn’t’cha?” Rook replied, grinning insanely. He still wore his old Army jacket, even after having been discharged, though he had torn off the sleeves. “That’s right, nothing gets past campus security!”

“Does Tellwyrn know you’re pulling that shit on honest tradesmen?”

“Nah, but my immediate boss does. In fact, Fedora’s running a pool on who I can make squeal like a girl. You just cost me five doubloons, by the way.”

Fred snorted, taking up the handles of his cart again. “Any other man I’d pick up the next round as compensation, but I’ve seen how you bet. If he didn’t take your money, somebody was gonna.”

Rook grinned and flopped back down onto the chair. “Yeah, yeah. Take it easy, Fred. See you tomorrow.”

“Don’t work too hard,” Fred said dryly as he continued on his way. Behind him, Rook practically bawled with laughter.

He let his expression grow solemn with contemplation as he began the long trek down the mountain. Aside from keeping his legs in top shape, his daily trips up and down gave him plenty of time to think. He had a lot to think about, these days.

Fred liked the people on the campus. Most of the students were good kids. There were one or two troublemakers, but those existed everywhere; even the noble ones, though clearly stuck up, weren’t usually rude. He liked those of the faculty with whom he’d had conversations. He actually liked the groundskeeper, Stew, who despite being an altogether weird kind of a thing struck him as a regular guy, hard-working and amiable. Horns, hooves, and all. The person with whom he had the most direct commerce, Mrs. Oak, was one of the least personable individuals he’d ever met, but he didn’t hold that against her. She wasn’t nasty, just wanted to be about her work with a minimum of chitchat. Fred knew a couple like that in town, too, introverted types who meant no harm but preferred to be left alone.

He even liked Professor Tellwyrn, for all that the likes of him seldom encountered her directly, and despite also being quite reasonably terrified of her. What Fred knew about magic would fit in a thimble; he’d heard somewhere that eating too much conjured food was unhealthy somehow, but even so, it was no stretch to realize that a woman who could summon whole buildings out of her own mind did not need to buy produce from the merchants in town to keep her campus fed. And yet, she did, which was the lion’s share of the reason he made a living. Some folks muttered about it being condescending, mostly perennial malcontents like Wilson who were just never going to be happy about anything. For Fred’s part, he saw it as a sign of respect on the Professor’s part for the little people who dwelled around her feet. Some folks in this world were just bigger and mightier, and it didn’t pay to take that personally, especially when they made an effort not to rub it in.

All this had been the backdrop of existence in Last Rock for his whole life. Lately, he’d had cause to dwell on it pretty heavily, and not very happily.

Fred made it back down and into town on the force of sheer habit, absently returning greetings from his neighbors as he returned to the store and packed away the cart. No shipments today; tomorrow would be busy, due to several scheduled deliveries in town and a fresh load due via Rail from Calderaas. For the moment, though, Rick was manning the front of the store, leaving him more or less at liberty.

He brought his mind back to the business at hand as he folded back the rug in the smaller storeroom, carefully undid the three locks on the trapdoor, lifted it and passed through, then pulled it back down after himself. It was a pricey rug for one tucked away in the storeroom, not because it was pretty but because of its straightening charm. The enchantment was designed to make life a little easier for housewives, but it also served to neatly cover up the trapdoor once somebody had vanished under it.

Fred descended the wooden steps cautiously, hearing voices below. Calm voices, including the one he recognized, so hopefully there was no trouble… Maybe he should’ve checked in with Rick before coming down. Nobody would’ve got through the trapdoor without Rick knowing it.

At the bottom of the stairwell, he rounded the corner into the basement room and paused. The basement’s current resident was there, of course, along with someone Fred recognized and had never expected to see again.

“Ah, Carlson,” the Hand of the Emperor said calmly. “Please, rise. I understand you may be acquainted with Ms. Reich?”

Fred had started to kneel, and straightened as ordered. “Uh…not personally, sir, but I saw her ’round town. Before. Welcome back, ma’am,” he added carefully.

Lorelin Reich gave him one of those Vidian smiles he found so unsettling, all placid good manners on the surface and layers of meaning at which he couldn’t even guess below that. He didn’t know how she did it…but then, maybe it was all in his own head. Last he’d heard of her, after all, she had been hauled away by Imperial Intelligence after being exposed by Gabriel Arquin. Exposed, specifically, for having cast some kind of agitation charm over the whole town. She was not someone he was particularly happy to see back in Last Rock.

“I understand your unease,” the Hand said in his brusque manner, which Fred was only lately starting to realize was just his way and didn’t mean anything personal.

“Oh, uh, I…”

“It’s all right,” Reich said, still smiling. “I’ve certainly earned some mistrust around here; I won’t begrudge you that. All I can do is try to atone for my mistakes, and be careful not to become so caught up again that I lose sight of my judgment, and ethics, in the same way.”

“Her presence here would cause some agitation in the town, obviously,” said the Hand, folding his hands behind his back, “and as such will remain secret for the time being. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Fred replied, nodding.

The Hand nodded curtly back. “Very good. You are back from your daily campus visit, then? If you are here, I assume you learned something?”

“Nothing solid, sir, but there are rumors now that I think you’ll want to know.” Fred paused, glancing uncertainly at the Vidian priestess.

“Ms. Reich is assisting me, just as you are,” the Hand said impatiently. “You may speak in front of her.”

“Uh, yes, sir. Well, like I said, no official confirmation, but the whole campus is buzzing about Tellwyrn having approved the first major research project. Apparently it just happened this morning.”

The Hand narrowed his eyes. “And have you any idea what the project is?”

“Just conjecture, sir, but here’s the thing: three of the people who presented the proposal to Tellwyrn were warlocks. One from the Wreath and that dwarf from Rodvenheim. Plus! The Salyrite representative, and in fact they actually called back their mage and sent a warlock from the Topaz college, apparently specially for this. Also, that Syralon guy. So…it’s almost certainly some kind of infernal thing, something to do with demons. I mean, I don’t have it confirmed, but why else so many warlocks?”

“I see,” the Hand said, scowling. “Excellent work, Carson, I commend you.”

“Just doin’ my part, sir,” Fred replied modestly, ducking his head. “For the Emperor.”

Turning to Reich, the Hand raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“Forewarned is forearmed,” she said. “I am at your disposal, of course, but there are significant risks if I were to try to investigate personally. I doubt my methods of stealth would beat Tellwyrn’s perceptions. Besides, I have ample proof they are not a match for Arquin, or his valkyrie friends.”

“Arquin has left the campus as of this morning, along with his classmates,” the Hand stated. Fred perked up; that much he hadn’t known. How many people were bringing the Hand information? “I am curious whether that means those valkyries went with him. Can you find out?”

“Hmm.” Reich frowned in thought. “Yes, I believe I can, though it will have to be done with the utmost care. They hang around him, specifically; none would be left stationed at the campus unless he asked it of them. And I am very curious how they are getting along with that incubus Tellwyrn is keeping up there now.”

“This is why I brought you here,” the Hand replied. “Find out what you can.”

She bowed. “Immediately, sir.”

“Carson, you look troubled.”

Fred jumped slightly; he hadn’t been aware that his thought were showing on his face, or that the Hand was watching him. “Oh, uh…it’s nothin’, sir. Just, um, the usual.”

The Hand raised one eyebrow in silence.

Fred swallowed. “I’m just…Tellwyrn’s always done right by the town. I’m with you, sir, don’t worry none about that. It’s just a hell of a thing, is all. I hate to think of her havin’ turned on the Emperor like this.”

“Don’t fall into the trap of considering Tellwyrn either a monster or a saint,” the Hand said firmly. “She is a self-interested individual doing what she deems best to secure her interests. That has long involved protecting Last Rock to a degree, and now, apparently, working against the interests of the Empire. Our task is to protect his Majesty, without hesitation, and without any unnecessary brutality. Don’t waste your time loathing her or feeling betrayed, Carson. Just go about the work.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, bowing his head again.

It still didn’t feel right. But what else was he to do? Fred Carson was the Emperor’s man, right down to his bones. If that meant he had to work against the University that provided his own livelihood… Well, the gods weren’t always kind. A man had to do what was right, whether he felt like it or not.


Raathi caught up with her less than an hour later at the prearranged spot. Ildrin did not enjoy loitering in alleys like some Eserite thug, but they had to be extra cautious at a time like this.

“Sergeant,” she said with relief at the Legionnaire’s approach. “Are you all right? The others?”

“We’re fine, no trouble,” Sergeant Raathi replied. “They’re back on patrol; I have to join them quickly. Leingardt grilled us, but our excuse is solid. This was your operation, ma’am, and Legionnaires don’t get punished for following a priestess’s directives in good faith. I’m sorry, Sister. I didn’t enjoy having to throw you under the wheels like that…”

“No,” Ildrin said firmly, “that was exactly the right thing. Leingardt was already after me, thanks to Syrinx. No sense in damaging anyone else’s cover.” She heaved a sigh, producing a brief white cloud, and ran a hand over her hair. “What a mess. I could kill that woman.”

“The Bishop didn’t seem to like those kids much, ma’am…”

“The Bishop doesn’t like anyone,” Ildrin said curtly. “And I need you to be extra careful. Now that we’ve lost the opportunity to interrogate them directly, we’re going to have to ask around to figure out what they know and who they learned it from, which I don’t have to tell you is risky. Probing for information tends to draw the Guild’s attention, and in this case maybe Syrinx’s, which is worse. She’s just as cruel as the Guild at their worst, and often for less reason.”

Raathi nodded. “What’s the plan, then?”

“We have to assume we have a leak,” Ildrin said, frowning. “Those apprentices didn’t do this at random, it was much too targeted. We have no friends in the Guild, so someone either in the Sisterhood or the Collegium had to have tipped them off. Probably not someone highly placed, or they’d have contacted the right authorities and not some random Eserite know-nothings. I’m going to have to keep my head down for a while once this gets out, which means finding their link in the Sisterhood will fall to you. If there is one.”

The Sergeant nodded again. “And the Collegium?”

“I’ll have to reach out to some of our allies for that. Beyond plugging leaks, Sergeant… Find out anything you can without risking your cover about who these kids are. Why are they so connected outside their own cult? Why does Syrinx of all people know them?”

“This is getting riskier by the minute, Sister…”

“I know,” Ildrin said grimly. “You must be prepared for the worst. Not only for danger to us, but for the possibility that we are going to have to silence someone.”

Raathi sighed, but nodded resolutely. “Whatever it takes, Sister.”

“Whatever it takes.”

 

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                 Next Chapter >

10 – 33

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

The land stretching south of Fersis seemed to be a sprawling transition between the Great Plains to the north and the forest that climbed steadily from the horizon as they approached. The town itself had been small and unmemorable, barely of a size to afford itself a Rail station, and that likely only because this was as close as the Empire could plant a transportation hub to the nearest elven grove. Unlike the neighbors of Sarasio, these elves clearly cherished their privacy and didn’t encourage visitors. To the other side of their forest lay Viridill, and apparently the nearest town in that direction was also most of a day’s hike away.

It was, so far, unmistakably a prairie, though one which bore little resemblance to the Golden Sea. The tallgrass was of a different species than its northern cousin, shorter, leafier and in varying shades of green and brown rather than the uniform gold. Other plant life was in evidence, as well, from towering ferns to various thorny shrubs, and even the occasional tree, most bent southward by years of steady wind. Even the geography was more varied; during the course of the day they had passed several streams and ponds, and here and there the prairie rolled upward into little hillocks (often with clumps of brush sheltered on their southern sides) or downward in shallow bowls.

According to Ingvar, there were also more animals about than in the Golden Sea. While the local tallgrass mostly grew no higher than mid-chest, it was apparently enough to camouflage these creatures; at any rate, Darling and Joe perceived no sign of them.

By midafternoon, they had made enough progress that Fersis was an invisible memory behind them, and the Green Belt loomed ahead, with beyond it a haze on the horizon that was the rolling mountain range of Viridill.

“Never thought I’d hear myself say this,” Darling sighed, “but I miss the Stalrange.”

“I never thought to hear you say that, either,” Invar remarked, glancing back at him with a faint smile. “You didn’t seem to fit in with the locals.”

“Oh, I thought the Rangers were very nice,” the thief said lightly. “But no, I meant the landscape. If we must traipse about on interminable nature hikes, that was a friendlier place to do it.”

“Seriously?” Joe asked. None of them were out of breath, even after walking most of the day with only a short break every hour. “That was much more vertical country. This is almost literally a walk in the park, next to the Stalrange. Almost reminds me of home.”

“Ah, but the cool mountain air,” Darling said, squinting up at the cloudless sky. “The scent of pines… The shade of pines. Whoof, I think I’ve had my yearly allotment of sunshine today.”

Ingvar had to grin at that. “And suddenly, your general pastiness makes a great deal more sense.”

“Hey, gimme a break,” Darling protested. “You live in Tiraas, you know what it’s like! In my hometown, the sky is frequently an upside-down swamp. This much sunshine can’t be healthy.”

“Hm…that’s actually a point, there,” Joe remarked, then plucked the wide-brimmed hat from his head and held it out toward Darling. “Here, put this on.”

“Oh, cut it out, it’s not that bad. I used the same sun oil you two did…”

“Uh huh,” said the Kid, unimpressed. “An’ what else do you notice? Ingvar’s got himself a proper tan, on account of this not bein’ his first nature hike by a long shot. And as for me…” He grinned, pointing at his face, which was a shade darker in complexion than either of theirs. “We may all three be of Stalweiss stock originally, but I wear the legacy of my Punaji grandmother an’ my ma’s grandpa from Onkawa. Ah, the joys of bein’ a mutt. You, blondie, are gonna fry like a hotcake before we ever reach the trees. Wear the hat.”

“Actually, dusk will fall before we arrive at the forest at this pace,” said Ingvar. “Keep your eyes peeled for serviceable campsites; while I do enjoy making good time, if a particularly promising one arises, we may wish to take advantage and rest for the remainder of the day. This close to an elven forest, there are likely to be well-used spots. Hidden, but not to the point of being secret. Watch the copses and hilltops.”

“Maybe we’ll run into some of the elves before then,” Darling suggested, now with Joe’s black hat perched incongruously atop his blonde locks, where it did not at all go with his outfit. Black theoretically matched everything, but the man seemed to have designed his suits to clash with everything.

“Elves have senses far keener than ours,” said Ingvar, “as you well know, and they will be in the habit of having scouts patrol their borders regularly. And that only concerns the mundane; their shamans will surely cast regular divinations to watch for intruders. If they even need to take such measures. For any very old practitioners of the Mother’s ways, especially elves, the land and the wind begin to speak as old friends. I would be amazed if they are not already aware of our presence.”

“I see a distinct lack of greeting parties, then,” Darling noted wryly.

“Don’t make assumptions about whether elves are around based on whether you see them,” Joe said with a grin. “Anyhow, even if we aren’t bein’ stalked by their scouts, it ain’t in their nature to roll out the welcome mat for uninvited guests. Elves like their privacy, an’ these folk ’round here are right on the edges of Imperial civilization. The elves near my hometown were fairly sociable by comparison, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these have a particularly bad taste in their mouths about clumsy humans bumblin’ around in their lands.”

“Indeed,” said Ingvar. “There are doubtless some still living who remember being slowly pushed out of what is now Calderaas by expanding human populations. Long ago, the Tira Valley and the lands west of the Wyrnrange were acknowledged human territory, while everything from the Green Belt north to the Dwarnskolds was the domain of the elves.”

“I didn’t realize you were a student of history, Ingvar,” Darling commented.

“Certain aspects of history. I think it would surprise you, what Huntsmen are called upon to know.”

“I’m willing to believe it would. Ah, well,” he said, removing Joe’s hat for a moment to fan himself with it. “Hopefully Mary came ahead to smooth the way. As I understand it, she’s not terribly well liked among the tribes, but is at least listened to. If we have to just bumble into a crowd of strange elves, I’m not certain even my sweet-talking skills are up to the task of getting access to…whatever it is we’re here to see.”

“I reckon she probably did,” Joe mused, “though I’ve noticed it ain’t sound policy to make assumptions about what Mary has or hasn’t done.”

“I would have assumed that even before meeting her,” said Ingvar.

“Gods aside,” Darling said thoughtfully after a moment of quiet walking, “this trip has already been a chance to stretch my wings, and not just because of all the exposure to the great outdoors. Dealing with people’s always been my strong suit, but…I’m just starting to realize what a narrow conception of people I’ve had. Living in the great melting pot of Tiraas, you don’t think of the people there as ‘narrow,’ and yet here I am, out of my element.”

“Were the people in Veilgrad so very different?” Ingvar asked.

“Veilgrad, no. The mountains outside Veilgrad are another matter. And…elves. Honestly, I have absolutely no idea how to proceed, here, which is an unusual feeling for me. There are some cultures where my kind of charm is nothing more than annoying.”

“I bet there are more a’ those’n you realize,” Joe muttered.

“You are at least somewhat acquainted with elves, are you not?” Ingvar inquired, glancing back at him. “After all, your apprentices are elves.”

“Plains elves,” said Darling. “No kin at all to the tribe we’re about to drop in on uninvited. And anyway, Flora and Fauna are in the process of learning how to be Eserite and Imperial; we don’t spend a lot of time discussing their home customs. Any time, really. In fact, now that I think about it, basically all the elves I know are pretty well assimilated and almost as Tiraan as anyone else, from the new Avenist Bishop to the drow of Lor’naris.” He grinned, stepping to the side as they walked to get a view around Joe of the forest ahead. “This will be…different. It’s been a good while since I had a chance to meet people who’re a complete mystery to me.”

“In fact, I vividly recall your last such chance,” Invar said dryly, looking back at him again. “Maybe you had better let me do the talking when we arrive.”

“How the tables have turned,” Darling muttered.

“So,” Joe drawled, “you find yourself out in the unknown, your skills and your very understanding of the world useless, and facing the very real chance that any action you take will be the wrong one. Bein’ unaccustomed to not knowin’ your footing, you feel even more helpless than you maybe actually are. Sound about right?”

“I think that might be overstating it just a little,” Darling protested.

“Y’know, a real smart fella once gave me a piece of good advice about just such a situation.”

Joe came to a stop, turning to face him and tucking his hands in his pockets, a sly little smile on his lips.

“Grow up.”

He held the startled Bishop’s gaze for a long moment, Ingvar also pausing to watch them curiously. Then Joe turned without a word to resume their trek.

They continued onward toward the grove, Darling still bringing up the rear, and for some reason laughing as if he’d just heard the best joke of his life.


Though it had been cleverly designed to maximize its use of space and seem expansive in its proportions, the small size of the Vidian temple beneath Last Rock was extremely evident with the entire Vidian population of the town present. They were less than thirty, but it really was a small temple; the room was almost uncomfortably warm with so many bodies present, and even their muted voices created a constant babble that seemed to fill the space, given how excited the undercurrent of conversation was.

Exactly two native townspeople had been practicing Vidians before this academic year, for a given value of “practicing.” Everyone else present had been drawn by the calling of Gabriel Arquin as paladin, and this was actually a lesser population than had been in the town only a few months before. Now, the remaining hangers-on had integrated themselves somewhat, either finding (usually intermittent) employment in Last Rock or subsisting on personal savings and creating custom for the local innkeepers.

In all that time, very few of them had managed to have a conversation with their paladin, who seemed to go out of his way to be reclusive. Val Tarvadegh, the temple’s official presiding priest and the only one who was actually supposed to be there, tended to monopolize the time Arquin spent on the premises. Since this was at the specific assignment of Lady Gwenfaer herself, no one quite dared complain; the faith’s mortal leader wasn’t known to be heavy-handed, but she was known to be sly even by Vidian standards, and one never knew what whispers might find their way to her ears. They did indulge in complaining about their inability to seek Arquin out on the University campus, since Professor Tellwyrn quite famously didn’t give a damn what anyone had to say about her.

Now, for the first time, the Hand of Vidius himself had called an assembly of every member of the faith in Last Rock. It was very short notice, but every one of them had dropped their other business and come running.

It wasn’t quite so crowded that people had to stand; the aisle was clear, as were the nooks between the columns that supported the sides of the temple. Marking a space between the temple grounds and the dirt outside them, these zones were considered sacred, as were all boundaries in the faith. The small dais at the back of the chapel was also clear, with only Val Tarvadegh and the other, newer priest, Lorelin Reich, standing calmly at its edge, awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor.

Most of the attention of those assembled was on the other guests. Three Tiraan soldiers stood at attention near the stairs leading up to the ground floor above—and not the three who lived on the campus and could often be seen about town. They were clustered to one side of the door, stiffly ignoring the assembled citizens. On the other side stood a woman with the black hair and tilted eyes of the Sifanese and related peoples, wearing the silver gryphon badge of an Imperial Marshal.

The anticipation was almost a physical presence. It hung so heavy over the little chapel that the sudden arrival of the paladin who had called the meeting brought an instant and total hush, unmarred even by expressions of shock at his abrupt appearance. No one had heard the upper door opening, but they of all people knew the tricks of misperception that ranking members of the faith could perform.

Arquin stood silently in the doorway for a few long moments, an intense young man with tousled dark hair, wearing a Punaji-style greatcoat of green corduroy in a shade so deep it was nearly black. At his waist hung a black-hilted saber of elven design; there was no sign of his god-given weapon on his person. He clutched his left wrist with his right hand, hard enough to rumple the fabric of his coat, and his expression was intent, but unreadable. In silence, he swept his dark eyes over the assembly, resting them for a moment on each of the two priests standing in the back.

“You all seem like nice people,” he said suddenly. “Thanks for coming, I know this was sudden. Sorry you haven’t seen much of me before today, but quite frankly I’m not at this University or on this earth to be gawked at, and most of you have no actual business here.”

There was a faint, awkward stir at that. The Marshal stood in silence to his left, her eyes perpetually scanning the room.

Arquin inhaled softly and let the breath out in a faint huff, then stepped forward a few paces till he was nearly abreast of the nearest row of benches.

“That’s now how you’re used to being spoken to in a temple of Vidius, is it? Yes, believe me, I know the customs. I’ve been studying them pretty, uh, intensively. False faces. A mask for every occasion.” His jaw tightened momentarily before he continued. “Everybody means well, more or less, but with doctrines like that… You pretty much can’t not have a thousand agendas for every hundred people, can you? Canniness and misdirection just make for a good Vidian, after all. I have to say, I’ve learned to greatly appreciate our doctrines of integrity. If not for that, the sense of truth to oneself and to the faith that’s emphasized so heavily to us, I figure the main difference between us and a bunch of Eserites would be their ability to get things done.”

There was another stir, this time with a few soft protests. They quickly fell silent as Arquin swept the room with his eyes again, now frowning in clear displeasure.

“I’ve been giving some thought,” he said, “to why Vidius would call a paladin from outside the faith. It’s been done before, of course. What was her name, that Hand of Avei? Val?”

By the dais in the back, Val Tarvadegh cleared his throat. “Laressa of Anteraas.”

“Yes, right! That’s the one, the Peacemaker. A few others. There was always a specific purpose for that when it happened. I know you’ve all been wondering what purpose Vidius had in pulling this…funny little trick on all of us. Well, I have too. And I recently was given some insight by the new priestess among us. Hey, Ms. Reich, would you join us up here?”

He beckoned with his left hand, at the same time drawing the black sword with his right. Lorelin Reich, having started to step forward immediately on being called, hesitated for a moment at this, her eyes flicking to the weapon, before continuing down the aisle toward him.

“I’m not sure I understand, Lord Gabriel,” she said in a rich contralto that was clearly accustomed to public speaking. “In fact, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of a conversation with you.”

“You could say I was inspired by your example,” said Arquin, staring at her with an intensity that bordered on ferocity. He flexed the fingers of his left hand almost convulsively before slipping it into the pocket of his coat.

“Well…in that case, consider me honored to have been of any service,” Reich said smoothly, gliding to a stop a few feet distant and bowing to him.

“Mm,” Arquin said noncommittally, eyes fixed on her face as if he were trying to memorize it. “You’re a good Vidian, aren’t you, Lorelin? Mind if I call you Lorelin?”

“Not at all, milord,” she said. “And I certainly try, though of course we all serve in our own way, according to our gifts. No one is a sufficient judge of their own—”

“Knock it off,” he said curtly, causing her to blink in startlement and several of the onlookers to gasp. “That is what I mean, Lorelin. There you are with a ready handful of doublespeak for anything I say. A mask for every occasion, right? Just like a good Vidian.”

She hesitated, staring at him, before replying. “Well… I am not sure what to reply to that, milord. Have I done something to offend you?”

“Oh, we’ll get to that in a moment,” he said coldly. “Everyone, I have come to a conclusion with regard to my calling. The faith of Vidius does not need a moral example, like a Hand of Omnu. You don’t need a battle leader, like the Hand of Avei. You know your business just fine. Unfortunately, your business encourages you to be more clever than is necessarily good for you. By and large, maybe that’s fine… But these aren’t by and large times. In case you haven’t noticed, the world is… Well, it’s changing, and I’m not just talking about social, political, economic issues. You all know about that. There’s something big happening. A great doom is coming. You need to be preparing for that. Preparing to help Vidius meet whatever threat comes. What you need is a taskmaster. Someone to keep you all on point.”

He withdrew his hand from his pocket; in it was the gnarled black wand given to him by their god. Quite a few pairs of eyes fixed on the weapon.

Lorelin Reich smiled and dipped her head in a semi-bow. “How can we be of service—”

“Shut your clever mouth,” Gabriel snarled.

The silence was immediate, total, and stunned.

“Among the things I cannot have you people doing,” the paladin continued, his face clenching in an expression of near fury, “is placing your own political agendas above not only the needs of the faith, but the safety and welfare of those around you. Like, for example, by deliberately casting a shroud of passions over an entire town, to make them susceptible to manipulation.”

“What?” someone exclaimed in a quavering voice from near the back.

“What are you talking about?” Lorelin demanded, staring at him in an expression of alarm. “Who would do such a thing?”

She tried to jerk back at the sudden motion of his left arm, but not fast enough. The wand morphed in his hand, extending instantly into a roughly-shaped black scythe, its curved blade apparently marred by rust, but its cutting edge gleaming wickedly. Gabriel whipped it around to hook the blade behind Lorelin Reich’s head, cutting off her retreat. She froze as the edge of the weapon came to rest against the back of her neck.

“It’s time to remove the mask, Lorelin,” Gabriel said in a voice like ice.

Behind him, the Marshal cleared her throat and stepped forward.

“Lorelin Reich, you are under arrest in the name of the Emperor for two hundred forty-six counts of unlawful magical influence.”

“You had better have a great deal more than this boy’s say-so,” Reich said furiously, her clenched fists quivering at her side. “Paladin or no, that is nothing but—”

Screams rang out and a mad scramble ensued as everyone tried to scoot or step away from the edges of the room. In every alcove along the walls, and all over the dais in the back, suddenly stood wavery figures, indistinct as if viewed through water. They were clear enough, though, to be clearly women garbed in dark armor, with black wings folded behind them, each carrying a scythe.

“Lesson number one,” said Arquin flatly. “Never assume the Hand of Vidius does not know your secrets. My eyes can look beneath any mask.”

“That’s…you can’t…” Reich swallowed convulsively. “A valkyrie’s testimony is not admissible in a court of law!”

“Oh, you just made that up,” the Marshal said lazily. “There’s no precedent for it, sure, but…”

“In order for a valkyrie to testify,” said Arquin, “the trial would have to be held on Vidian holy ground. There is a precedent for that; I checked.” He began slowly lowering his arm, pulling the blade of the scythe forward and forcing Reich to step closer to him or risk learning exactly how sharp it was. She opted not to test it, taking grudging little steps toward him. “They can, as you see here, appear where the land is consecrated to their god. For them to actually speak, an additional blessing would be required. And hey, guess what I just learned how to do!”

He suddenly raised his sword, pressing its tip against Reich’s sternum; she gulped audibly, her eyes cutting down to it. Arquin continued to slowly pull forward with the scythe, forcing her to bend forward in a bowing position and hold it.

“But let’s not make me go to all that trouble, shall we, Lorelin? Tell you what… You be a good girl and cooperate with the nice Marshal, and the good folks in Imperial Intelligence who’ll want to ask you some questions. Then they’ll be inclined to be nicer to you…” His voice hardened still further. “And I will refrain from telling my good friend Juniper how your scheme involved hurting her pet bunny.”

“I did nothing of the kind!” Reich said shrilly, her whole body swaying and trembling in place as she fought to keep her balance in the awkward position.

“I can see how the sudden change of topic might have confused you,” Gabriel growled. “A dryad isn’t an Imperial magistrate. I don’t have to prove to Juniper beyond a reasonable doubt that you molested her pet; I just have to tell her you did.”

A golden shield flashed into place around Reich’s bent form. It had absolutely no effect on the scythe behind her; a sparkling haze lit up around the black saber, previously invisible blue runes flaring to life along its blade. Neither weapon wavered.

“That is not helping your case, Lorelin,” Arquin said with a very cold smile. “Cut it out. Now.”

She held the shield for a moment before letting it drop, emitting a strangled sob. Terrified silence hung over the chapel now, all those assembled staring either at the furious paladin or the looming reapers.

“Now then,” Arquin said in a tight voice, “you’re going to be cooperative, correct? And don’t worry, I’ll have valkyries continue to watch you and make sure the Empire doesn’t handle you too roughly. You’re still a member of the faith, after all. At least until Lady Gwenfaer decides that selling us out to the Archpope’s political agenda and publicly embarrassing the entire cult is worth excommunication. You understand?”

“Yes,” she choked, teetering desperately between the two blades.

“Splendid,” he said curtly, suddenly whipping the sword away and giving her a gentle nudge with the haft of the scythe. Reich collapsed to the side, where she curled up around herself on the floor, crying quietly.

“As for the rest of you,” Arquin said frostily, lifting his eyes to drag a fierce stare around the room. “Find something more constructive to do with yourselves. Unless you have a legitimate reason to be in Last Rock—which means an employer and a landlord who’ll vouch for you—I want you out of town by sunset tomorrow. This is not a vacation spot, and I am not a tour guide. A great doom is coming, and your god needs you. Get to work.”

He turned abruptly to go, then paused, and glanced back over his shoulder at them.

“And do not make me come tell you again. So help me, I will whip this cult into shape to face what’s coming. You don’t want to be the one I have to start on. The Hand of Death doesn’t bother with masks.”

Finally, he strode forward onto the staircase, quickly vanishing into the shadows above. The Marshal made a quick motion, spurring the soldiers forward to collect Reich, then turned to follow him.

At last, the valkyries faded back into invisibility.

Standing by the dais in the back of the chapel, Val Tarvadegh stared wide-eyed after his departed paladin, his hands clutched together before him as if in prayer.


They stood a few yards distant, near the point where one of Last Rock’s streets opened onto the Golden Sea and the nearby Vidian temple, watching the soldiers usher a very subdued Lorelin Reich into a waiting carriage with barred windows. Another uniformed officer sat in the driver’s seat.

Gabriel waited until Reich was secured within before letting out a low hiss. He jerked his left sleeve back, revealing a braided cord wrapped around his wrist, which he quickly but clumsily clawed off and stuffed into his coat pocket, muttering furiously to himself the whole time. With the bracelet stowed away, he stood there grimacing and alternately rubbing his wrist where it had been and dry-washing the fingers of his right hand against his coat.

Marshal Avelea watched this performance with raised eyebrows, but apparently decided to let it pass without comment.

“Having a valkyrie monitor our proceedings isn’t necessary, just for the record. We don’t abuse potentially useful prisoners anyway.”

“That was for her benefit, not yours,” Gabriel said, still wincing and rubbing his wrist. “You’re probably aware that Vidian clerics have…certain skills. Misdirection, stealth… I’m sure Imperial Intelligence has the ability to counter that, but I thought it’d be less trouble for everybody if she knew not to try it.”

“Ah.” The Marshal nodded, smiling faintly. “Well. If I may say so, that shows both your lack of experience and your good instincts. Lorelin Reich is a political creature; as of now, her focus will be on damage control, and trying to salvage as much of her life from this as possible. I expect her to be eagerly cooperative once she’s had the chance to regain her poise; she’ll fall over herself to sell out the Archpope in exchange for leniency. The last thing she’ll want to do is become a fugitive from Imperial justice.”

“Oh,” he said grimacing. “I guess…yeah.”

“I must say,” she continued, “you handled that…surprisingly well. Given what I was briefed on your history, I expected you to be rather more nervous, giving a speech like that.”

“Yeah, well.” Gabe shrugged and rubbed his wrist again. “I asked Professor Rafe for something to help keep me calm and focused.”

“I see,” she said, her lips thinning faintly in disapproval. “Well, whatever works. As a matter of general policy, though, I would not get in the habit of depending on drugs to help you function.”

“Yeah, that’s what Rafe said. Anyway, it wasn’t drugs so much as a hemp bracelet impregnated with a special formulation of katzil venom that caused constant pain but no damage. Apparently the outward symptoms of pain look almost exactly like those of righteous outrage. I wasn’t so sure, but damn if it didn’t work.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out in one blast, glancing back at the door to the subterranean temple. “Good thing, too. I may still need to go home and throw up…”

“Ah.” Avelea nodded, a smile spreading slowly over her features. “Well. That’s another matter, but…similar. Best to develop the ability to handle such situations unaided.”

“Right, agreed. But that’s an ability I haven’t developed before now, and I’ll practice on my own time, with lower stakes. When things matter, I’m gonna use every trick I have available.”

“Also a wise policy. You mind if I have a look at that? I’ve actually never heard about such a formula.”

“Oh, uh… I guess I should specify it causes pain but no harm to me. You’d be better off keeping your non-hethelax hands to yourself. Sorry.”

“Right. Quite so.” She nodded again, her smile widening. “Well, Mr. Arquin… Much to my surprise, I find it has been a pleasure to work with you. Next time you’re in Tiraas, do look me up; my office will know where I am.”

“I, uh, appreciate that,” he said carefully. “But with the greatest possible respect, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but… Honestly I would prefer not to be dealing with Intelligence any more than I absolutely have to.”

Avelea’s smile extended still further. “I didn’t say Intelligence. I said look me up.” She held his startled gaze for a long moment, then deliberately winked, before turning away to stroll to the carriage. “Take care, Gabriel.”

The Marshal climbed up onto the driver’s seat beside the soldier, and the other troopers took up positions on small platforms at the corners of the vehicle. The carriage purred to life, and rolled off toward the Rail platform, where a special carrier car was standing by for it.

Gabriel stood alone on the plain, smiling vaguely and still absentmindedly rubbing at his wrist.

“Hopefully I don’t need to remind you,” said Ariel, “that that woman is a professional spy, who is cultivating a relationship with you for tactical advantage and not out of personal interest.”

He sighed heavily, his pleased expression vanishing. “Can you just for once let me enjoy something?”

“Fine. You may enjoy it for two minutes, and then we need to resume dealing with reality.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, turning to head back up the mountain. “I have a feeling I just kicked a whole hornet’s nest of reality…”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >

10 – 9

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                          Next Chapter

The manor gates were standing open when they arrived. The group paused for a moment, glancing around at one another before Darling shrugged, grinned insouciantly, and strolled on in. There was nothing for them to do but follow, Ingvar with a soft sigh.

Though the thief made a (somewhat casually-paced) beeline for the door, Joe and Ingvar carefully studied the grounds as they trailed along in his wake. The gravel walk was even and clean, the house apparently well-repaired, its partial blanket of climbing ivy even cleared away from windows. It didn’t look like a particularly well-maintained property apart from that, however. There was no landscaping of any kind, and the lawn was essentially a walled-in patch of wild prairie in the forest, thick with chest-high grasses, bramble bushes and even occasional small trees that had clearly grown up within the last ten years or so, due to no one bothering to clear them out. There was no statuary, no garden or porch furniture, and the only flowers appeared haphazardly on the edge of the walk where the taller grasses didn’t quite blot out their access to sunlight.

They all stopped again at the top of the short flight of steps to the manor’s doors, because those doors opened before they got close enough to knock. Well, one of the double set did, revealing a beautiful young woman in an expensive red gown. She regarded them with a faint, knowing smile.

“Good afternoon!” Darling said with a grin and a bow. “Would I have the pleasure of addressing Lady Malivette?”

“Hardly,” she said, her smile widening. “But please come in, your Grace. She is expecting you.” With that, she stepped aside, gesturing them demurely through.

“You’re too kind!” Darling, again, strolled right on ahead as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Joe and Ingvar exchanged a significant look before following, hands straying close to holstered wands and tomahawks.

The woman in red stood aside to watch them with that calm smile as they clustered together inside, pushing the door shut as soon as they were clear of it. Inside, the entrance hall of Dufresne Manor was more of the same: clean, well-repaired, but starkly bare of furnishings and apparently not much cared for. The three gave it only a glance, however, being focused upon the person waiting for them at the base of the stairs, directly ahead.

It could only be Malivette Dufresne; the crimson eyes were a dead giveaway. She also wore an exquisite but severe black gown that suited the vampire mystique, but apart from that, she seemed to be just a petite young woman who could be quite pretty if she’d get a good night’s sleep, eat several regular meals and get some sun. Ingvar, naturally, was not about to voice that assessment.

“Bishop Darling,” the lady of the house intoned in a silky contralto voice. “What an interesting visit. I can’t recall the last time a cleric deemed me desirable company—though, now that I’ve said it aloud, it occurs to me that the disciples of Eserion aren’t exactly the standard run of clergy, are you?”

“Why, we take pride in not being the standard run of anything, m’lady,” Darling said with another grandiose bow. “I apologize for dropping in on you like this…though apparently we’re not quite as unexpected as I was expecting.”

“No indeed,” the vampire said with a broad, friendly smile which was both uncharacteristic of the nobles Ingvar had observed, and unnerving in that it showed off her elongated canines. He suspected that was no accident. Malivette oozed forward with a slinky gate that might have been alluring under other circumstances. “This has been the day for unexpected visitations—you’re not half so surprising as what told me to be on the lookout for you. Tell me, your Grace, do you know what a shadow elemental is?”

Darling blinked. “I…confess I haven’t the faintest idea. Sorry, elementals are a bit over my head.”

“I didn’t either,” said the vampire, her smile fading. “Let me tell you, it’s a hell of a thing to have breezing into your living room all of a sudden.”

“And we are exceedin’ly sorry to’ve been such an imposition, however indirectly, ma’am,” Joe said politely, hat in hand. “It’s clear you don’t care for visitors. We’ll aim not to take up a hair more of your time than absolutely necessary.”

Malivette turned her red eyes on him, tilting her head inquisitively. “That’s clear, is it? Now, what makes you think that?”

Joe glanced at Darling, who merely raised his eyebrows, expression a blank mask of curiosity. The Kid cleared his throat. “Well, ah… Just puttin’ together the numbers, so t’speak. Your home is in very good repair, an’ so’s the outer wall. None o’ that’s cheap for a property this size, which means the apparent state of disrepair’s deliberate. Few times I’ve seen rich places fallen on hard times, the furnishings were all kept, an’ all gettin’ shabby together. I reckon you affect a tumbledown aesthetic on purpose, to discourage people comin’ over.”

“Why, what a sharp eye you have,” Malivette cooed, “Mr…?”

“Jenkins, ma’am. Joseph P. Jenkins. Just payin’ attention and applyin’ logic. Your pardon if I step outta turn, I mean no disrespect.”

“Oh, pish tosh,” she said, waving a hand airily. “I do say it’s a delight to meet a young man your age with a sense of did you say Joseph P. Jenkins?”

He swallowed. “I, ah…yes, I did.”

“Well, as I don’t live and breathe!” the vampire enthused, grinning broadly. “The Sarasio Kid, in my front room! What a day this is turning out to be! The Kid, the Bishop, and…” Her gaze fell on Ingvar. “I’m certain this is quite a story, too.”

“This is Brother Ingvar,” Darling said mildly. “Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Brother?” Malivette looked him up and down, and Ingvar refrained from bristling, having had far too much practice at it. “Okay. Quite a story, then.”

“And one with which we won’t bore you,” Ingvar said flatly. “Your pardon, lady, but these gentlemen seek an audience with you; I am merely traveling with them. I’m afraid I’ve nothing to offer or ask of you, and will not trouble you more than I must simply by being here.”

“There’s no need to be defensive, Brother Ingvar,” the vampire said with a faint smile. “We all have our need for privacy—believe me, you will rarely meet someone who understands that better than I.” She transferred her gaze back to Darling. “So! What wind blows you to my door, Bishop?”

“Well,” he said with an easy smile, “we’re following up on a trail of old events, your Grace. I understand you had some houseguests recently!”

“Mm hmm,” she murmured, watching him closely now. “The sort of houseguests about whom lots of people are curious. It’s not my policy to divulge anyone else’s secrets any more than my own—and that’s even for people who aren’t watched over by a certain archmage with an apocalyptic temper.”

“By all means,” he said smoothly, “I’ve no intention of digging into the students’ business; we won’t be at all offended if you can’t tell us anything. It’s not they who chiefly concern us, anyhow. The events in question, though…” He sighed, glancing back at the others. “Well, the truth is, Joe and I are part of a group of folks who were trying to prevent disaster from breaking out here.”

“Good job,” she said, deadpan.

Darling chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, you’ve hit it on the head, my lady. I was the one in charge of planning, Joe more a boots-on-the-ground type. I completely missed my mark—had everybody nosing around up north of Desolation. I misread the intelligence and didn’t pay enough attention to Veilgrad until matters here disintegrated so far there was nothing to be done, except by those already present.” He sighed. “I’ll have to accept your condemnation, Lady Dufresne, for failing you, even if you had no idea I was trying to help. What we are doing here, now, is investigating what happened, why, and at whose behest. The goal is to get a better handle on events so as not to make such mistakes in the future. But it already being well too late to be of use to you, here, so… As I said, I’ll take no offense if you show us the door at this point.”

“Hmm,” she mused, studying him thoughtfully. She turned her unsettling gaze on Joe, and then on Ingvar. “Hmm. Mm hmm hm hmm. Ruby!” The vampire looked past them at the woman in red. “Would you be good enough to show our guests into the dining room?”

“Of course, my lady,” said Ruby, curtsying gracefully to the men when they turned to her. “If you will follow me, please, gentlemen?”

“Most comfortable room in the house that I don’t sleep in,” said Malivette cheerfully. “I’ll be with you in just a tick, lads.”

Abruptly she exploded in a cloud of swirling, squeaking mist. Ingvar leapt back, drawing a tomahawk by reflex, as a swarm of bats whirled out of the place where the vampire had stood. Squealing and chattering, they fluttered up to the second-floor landing and down a hall.

“I apologize for the mistress of the house,” Ruby said calmly. “Social isolation and a rather quirky sense of humor make her, at times, startling to company. This way, please?”

“Put that up,” Darling said in a low tone as he followed after her. “What’d you think you were gonna do, chop down the bats?”

“Ease up, your Grace,” Joe said to him, equally softly but with an edge. “It’s instinct. Makes perfect sense to me, an’ I doubt the lady took offense. She seems too intelligent not to know exactly what she’s doin’ with antics like that.”

“Fair enough,” Darling said with a shrug, and offered Ingvar a smile.

The Huntsman slipped his ax back into its belt loop, not acknowledging him.

Ruby led them through a side door into a dining room that was very like the entrance hall in aesthetics—which was to say, clean and bare. A fireplace stood at one end of the room and a long table lined with chairs down its center.

Malivette, somehow, was already waiting for them.

“There you are,” she said cheerfully. “I was afraid you’d gotten lost. I have something for you, Bishop Darling.”

She was, indeed, holding an object, which she lightly tossed to the Bishop. Darling caught it deftly, turning the staff over in his hands; Ingvar and Joe both craned their necks over his shoulder to peer at it. Though about the size of an Army-issue battlestaff, it looked more like a scepter, capped at both ends with large crystals and with hefty spirals of gold embossing half its length. There was an obvious clicker mechanism in the usual place, however.

“I’ve been wanting to get rid of that for weeks,” their hostess said. “My plan was always to get it into the hands of the Thieves’ Guild, but our local representative is a little too closely tied to the Army for my comfort, and well… That makes things complicated with regard to that weapon.”

“Weapon?” Joe said, raising his eyebrows.

“Complicated?” Darling added. “How so?”

Malivette grinned again, which was no less disconcerting. “You boys had best grab some seats—this might take a while. Upon consideration, I believe I’ll be happy to tell you all about what went down in Veilgrad recently. Ruby, bring the gentlemen some refreshments, would you? This might take…a while.”


 

Though the revival had ended, a festive atmosphere lingered over Last Rock, chiefly due to the efforts of the remaining religious institutions to capitalize on the spirit. The Universal Church chapel had remained open and fully staffed with a few priests from the capital lingering in town for that purpose; Father Laws had wisely avoided the temptation to give extra sermons, instead having organized a bake sale. The lure of fresh baked goods, donated by the ladies of the town, and freely available root beer and apple cider had kept people streaming steadily through the chapel and its yard all afternoon, once usual working hours had passed. Students trickled down from the mountain, too, their own classes being done for the day.

With the tents and representatives from the other cults having packed up and left, Last Rock’s newest additions were doing a brisk business, too. The high spirits of the revival lingered but the competition had not, and the new Vidian temple and the Silver Mission were both centers of activity. People clustered and swirled around the Mission’s grounds, on the outskirts of town near the Rail platform, but by far the biggest concentrations of activity were on a different side of the outskirts, between the Vidian amphitheater and the chapel, which were not far separate. In that region, shops along the short stretch of street linking the two had set out festive stands (several complete with free samples), and a sort of impromptu town picnic had formed on the prairie around the temple.

The Vidians themselves were putting on a performance. It was an old morality play, one of those stories with a ham-fisted message which everyone had already heard anyway, but not for nothing was Vidius the patron of false faces; the performers put effort and style into the production, and Val Tarvadegh, the chief priest attached to this temple, was a man with a robust sense of humor, which colored the proceedings to their benefit. Many townsfolk were clustered in and around the small amphitheater, actually watching the show, even as others milled about on the grass, sharing food and gossip.

Big, Church-sponsored festivals were fine and dandy, but now was a day for the good folk of Last Rock to have their own shindig. If a few muttered and cast dark looks at the University students in their midst, they kept it discreet, and nobody seemed to pay them any notice.

A dozen yards or so distant from the amphitheater, another cluster of people had formed around a large blanket laid out on the grass, replete with dishes brought by various citizens. Some stood or sat near it, grazing and chit-chatting, and a handful of children chased each other around nearby, pausing periodically when some adult or other scolded them, though they didn’t seem to be bothering the performers. Quite a few people were gathered on the far side of the blanket, however, watching another impromptu show at the edge of the tallgrass.

It was a little unclear what exactly Juniper was trying to do with her jackalope, expect give him some exercise. She had Jack on a harness and leash—itself a highly impressive feat to those who knew anything of the creatures and their temperament—and was running up and down, back and forth, and in circles with him. Periodically she would give him commands to stop, or to leap, which he occasionally chose to obey. Generally, Jack didn’t seem to mind bounding alongside his companion, and he made short work of the peanuts she gave him after every successful “trick,” but based on his performance he had clearly not learned to associate obedience with reward. It probably didn’t help that she gave him encouraging scratches behind the ear even when he refused to jump on command.

They made for an amusing spectacle anyway, particularly the dryad. With her green hair flying in the breeze, garbed in just her usual sundress, Juniper was an impressive physical specimen, which the exercise just served to highlight. It probably helped to encourage her audience that her antics were bouncy in multiple senses. A few of the women of the town were dividing annoyed looks between the dryad and their male companions. In a slightly separate group off to one side, several University kids loitered around, chitchatting and eyeballing Juniper with even less discretion.

“Am I alone in sensing a certain…coldness?” Sekandar Aldarasi asked quietly, eying the nearby citizens.

“What, you mean the townies?” Chase replied, glancing at them before returning his gaze to Juniper. “Nah, that’s about typical. They always keep a little aloof.”

“You are not alone, Sekandar,” Ravana said calmly. “We’ve been here a relatively short time, but I have noted a subtle yet consistent change in the way the locals look at us since yesterday.”

“Since Bishop Snowe’s very interesting speech,” Sekandar said, nodding.

“Well, maybe you’re right,” Chase said with a grin. “I mean, who’d know better? They’re your people, after all.”

Sekandar barked a short laugh. “Hah! These? The mostly Stalweiss descendants of Heshenaad’s armies, with a culture and dialect heavily influence by the gnomes and plains elves? When the Great Plains were officially claimed, most of them were divided into new provinces; this area was appended to Calderaas only because House Tirasian needed to placate my family after the skulduggery following the Enchanter Wars. The frontiersmen are no one’s people but their own. I think they rather insist on that point.”

“Y’know, this is a lot like one of Tellwyrn’s lectures,” Chase commented. “Except—and I never thought I would say this—she’s prettier than you.”

“Well, you can see the evidence before you,” Sekandar said dryly. “Everyone seems to find Juniper far more interesting than their prince.

Ruda snorted. “Be fair, now. If you had knockers like that, they’d be all over you.”

“Yeah?” Chase turned to her, grinning. “You’ve got knockers like that, and nobody’s bothering you, I see.”

“Maybe because I don’t wave ’em around for everybody to gawk at.”

“Yes, and I’ve been meaning to speak to you about that, now that you mention it. A rack of such proportions is a gift from the gods, Punaji. You have a certain obligation to share—”

“On the subject of confusing me with Juniper, Masterson,” Ruda interrupted. “she’s the one who needs a good reason to beat your ass into the ground.”

“Oh!” Chase bonked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. “Right, sorry. I always get those mixed up.”

Ravana gave him a very long, very cool look from the corner of her eye, which he appeared not to notice. Beside her, Szith edged subtly closer, casually flexing her fingers in the vicinity of her sword.

Juniper had either finished her allotted exercise or given up on Jack’s training, and was now wandering toward the other students, the jackalope gathered into her arms. Before getting more than a few yards, however, she was intercepted by a girl of no more than eight who burst out of the crowd of townsfolk.

“Hi!” she squealed, beaming. “Can I pet the bunny?”

“Oh,” Juniper said, blinking at her and carefully adjusting her grip on Jack. “Um, that’s not a really good idea, honey.”

The child’s face immediately crumpled.

“It’s just that he’s still being trained,” Juniper said hastily. “And he doesn’t like strangers. Jackalopes aren’t tame bunnies; those antlers can really hurt you. I wouldn’t want that to happen! Aw, please don’t cry…”

“Hm,” Ravana murmured, her eyes roving over the picnic area; almost everyone else was studying the new drama unfolding. “Why is that child not playing with the others?”

“Children are unpredictable,” Ruda grunted. “Bunnies are fluffy. Can’t expect a kid to understand that bunny is also a thing of goddamn evil.”

“Who is that?” Ravana inquired, nodding her head toward a lean-faced blonde woman in a black coat, who had come to stand at the front of the group of townsfolk.

“I don’t know her name,” Szith replied. “She is a priestess of Vidius, however, from what I have overheard. Apparently she and an Avenist have stayed on after the revival to be attached permanently to their respective temples.”

“And she’s now here,” Ravana mused, “watching this, instead of the Vidian service going on. Interesting.”

“I’m not sure I’d call a play a Vidian service,” Sekandar began.

“Uh oh,” Ruda said suddenly, frowning, and pointed.

A woman had emerged from the crowd, stalking over to Juniper, who backpedaled, clutching her jackalope. His ears had begun to twitch dangerously, though he had not yet started struggling.

“What are you doing to my child?” she demanded.

“I was just—”

“She ain’t hurtin’ anything,” the woman said sharply, taking the little girl by the hand and glaring at Juniper. “I don’t see any call to be snapping at her.”

“I wasn’t trying to snap,” the dryad said earnestly. “It’s just, she wanted to pet Jack, and I was trying to explain—”

“And what’s wrong with that? Are you really so hard up you can’t let a little girl touch your rabbit?”

“Now, hold on,” Juniper protested.

“Marcy, there ain’t no call to be like that,” a man added, stepping forward and frowning reproachfully. “She weren’t hurtin’ the girl. What would you say if she wanted to pat an ornery mule? You can’t let a kid get too close to disagreeable animals, that’s just sense.”

There were several nods and murmurs of agreement from the onlookers, which seemed to infuriate Marcy. She clutched her daughter close, the child having begun to cry in earnest during all the raised voices.

“It’s a rabbit, Herman. What’s it gonna hurt? All I see’s one o’ them kids from up on the hill who thinks she can walk around our town doin’ what she likes, an’ not show the slightest regard for th’ people livin’ here!”

That brought a few murmurs of its own.

“Omnu’s breath, Marcy, it’s her rabbit!” Herman exclaimed.

“Hey!” Natchua pushed forward through the crowd; Marcy shied back from the glaring drow, huddling protectively around her weeping daughter. “Your child was trying to interfere with an aggressive wild animal with very large horns. Its trainer just explained that it’s only half-trained and not sociable. It’s not going to be the dryad’s fault of someone gets gored. As I see it, the difference between you two is she is being responsible for her little beast!”

“Oh, my,” Chase breathed, grinning from ear to ear. Several of the onlookers had burst out laughing, while others were nodding in agreement—though with whose points it was impossible to say.

“If I may?” The soft voice cut through the noise, clearly delivered by someone accustomed to projecting through the stage. The blonde woman in Vidian black stepped forward, smiling. “Madam, I certainly understand your concern, but having been here a few moments before you arrived, I can assure you I saw no one threatening your child. She was disappointed, not harmed. And the young lady is quite correct: jackalopes are not friendly creatures, as a rule. Might I suggest it would be wise if everyone lowered their voices? The poor creature looks rather stressed. We wouldn’t want to provoke him, now would we?”

At that, most of the onlookers obligingly dropped their tones, or stopped talking entirely, and Juniper eased back further, clutching Jack close and stroking his fur. His nose was twitching furiously, but he still didn’t lunge free; despite appearances, her training seemed to be having some effect on him.

“Well, you can’t blame me,” Marcy muttered, stroking the child’s hair. “I came over to find my girl crying and that…woman right there… We all know dryads ain’t the safest creatures.”

“Juniper seems to have been trying to protect the child from another dangerous creature, if I’m not mistaken,” said the blonde. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve met everyone yet.” She dropped to a crouch, smiling disarmingly at the girl, who peeked out from over her mother’s arm. “Hi, there. My name’s Lorelin. What’s yours?”

“D-daisy,” the child sniffled. “Daisy Summers.”

“Daisy!” the priestess said warmly. “That’s very pretty, your parents have good taste. I’m sorry you didn’t get to pet the bunny, hon. You have to remember, though, he belongs to Miss Juniper. We must respect other people’s things, mustn’t we? You’d want them to respect yours, right?”

Daisy muttered something indistinct; Lorelin smiled up at Marcy and winked, before straightening up. “There, now, just a little misunderstanding. It’s good you came along when you did, ma’am.”

“Well, I’m glad someone ’round here has some sense,” Marcy said, shooting a look at Herman. He threw up his hands and turned away.

“I’m sure we all are,” Natchua said, fairly dripping sarcasm.

“Hmmmm,” Ravana mused from the sidelines. “How very interesting.”

“How so?” Sekandar inquired. She just shook her head.

Juniper had retreated further, back toward the tallgrass, and set Jack down to let him stretch and relax. Chase and a few of the others started toward her, but she looked up, shook her head apologetically and gestured them back, still soothingly stroking the jackalope’s fur.

That was the moment when Jack lunged forward, his powerful legs propelling him like a stone from a catapult. His leash brought him up short, the force of the jump not shifting the startled Juniper by an inch, and so his horns merely grazed Herman’s leg, rather than outright impaling him.

Herman staggered with a yell, other shouts immediately breaking out from the onlookers. Juniper began frantically reeling the struggling jackalope back toward her, even as he continued to bound this way and that, lunging at whoever his eyes caught. People wisely backpedaled away from the dryad and her pet, Marcy picking up Daisy and fleeing at a run. Natchua, standing just outside the range of the jackalope’s diminishing leash, watched them go without moving.

Chase was laughing so hard he had to sit down.

Lorelin had leaped to Herman’s side; she and another man from the crowd helped him away from the struggling jackalope and to a seated position on the ground, where the priestess knelt beside him, hands glowing with healing light.

Amid the hubbub, Ravana caught Sekandar’s elbow and tugged gently. He glanced down at her curiously, but allowed himself to be led; she pulled him back from the gaggle of students toward Ruda, who now stood a few feet distant, idly swirling a bottle of rum and watching the proceedings thoughtfully.

“Your Highnesses,” Ravana said, coming to a stop.

Ruda made a face at her, but Sekandar, merely raising an eyebrow, played along. “Your Grace?”

“I wonder,” said the Duchess, “if you would be good enough to say whether you’ve just seen the same sequence of events I have.”

The Prince, turned his head, frowning thoughtfully at Juniper, who had got Jack back into her arms and was holding him firmly. “Hum. I would have to say this began yesterday, with Bishop Snowe’s speech. In a widespread religious event organized by the Universal Church, a Bishop thereof launched a very sharp verbal attack on the University. Most uncharacteristic behavior for an Izarite, I might add, which suggests on whose behalf she was speaking. Now, we have this little drama, facilitated by a new Vidian cleric who arrived as part of the same function.”

“There’s a new Avenist, too,” Ruda added quietly. “A priestess, apparently gonna be working down at the Silver Mission. That’s interesting to me; Trissiny’s whole point in starting those was having a single cleric on hand to organize, and lettin’ the rest of any staff be volunteer laypeople.”

“I don’t suppose either of you happened to observe what this Lorelin was doing before the child approached Juniper and kicked all this off?” Ravana inquired, still watching the hubbub as it gradually got under control, townspeople drifting away and Herman gingerly testing his leg.

“I’m afraid not,” said Sekandar.

“Because I distinctly recall seeing the town’s children playing together, some yards distant,” Ravana continued. “There could, of course, be perfectly innocent explanations for that one having separated from the group to approach Juniper and the rabbit, but the timing seems odd, to me.”

“Hm,” Ruda said noncommittally.

“And now,” Ravana continued, “we have an incident. A local resident injured, however slightly, by a student. Or at least, I’ve no doubt that is how the story will be told. And all right as this new cleric, placed here by the same organization which funded Bishop Snowe, arrived on the scene.”

“Speculation,” Ruda pointed out.

“Oh without doubt,” Ravana agreed. “I merely point out a suggestive sequence of events. Any of them could be coincidental and harmless. It’s when chained together that a troubling pattern emerges. I’m sure that I needn’t lecture the two of you about suggestive sequences of individually harmless events.”

“No, you needn’t,” Ruda said, now watching the Vidian priestess, who was in earnest conversation with Herman and two other town citizens.

“I wonder,” Sekandar mused, “how difficult would it be for a cleric to manifest an object of divine light. Something small enough to, say, prod a jackalope, or flick its ear.”

“Hmm,” Ravana said thoughtfully, tapping her lips with one finger. “It was my understanding that light-created objects had to remain in contact with the caster.”

“What about divine shields? They are clearly solid, and not physically connected to their creators.”

“You have a point,” she acknowledged. “Of course, the tricky part would have to be doing it without garnering attention. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t such misdirection a known skill of higher-ranking Vidian clerics?”

“Almost half my class is taking divine casting with Harklund this semester,” said Ruda. “I’ll ask about the possibilities. Discreetly.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, nodding. “I’m sure you both understand the importance of discretion, here. It might be unfortunate if one of the paladins were to hear an accusation without proof at this juncture.”

“That would muddy the waters,” Sekandar said, frowning. “I dislike the thought of sneaking around them…”

“Don’t sneak,” Ruda advised, “and don’t lie. This is nothing but unconfirmed theory as of right now; there’s no reason at all for them to hear about it until there’s something significant for them to hear. Trust me, I know those three. One would shrug and blow you off, and the other two would fly right the hell off the handle.”

“Quite so,” said Ravana. “If it all turns out to be nothing, it will be better not to have sown any further seeds of discord. But if, for whatever reason, the Universal Church is angling to undermine the University, it seems best, to me, that someone be on site to angle right back. Don’t you agree?”

Standing a few yards distant, separate from all the various groups of people present, Szith stared into space, one hand resting lightly on the hilt of her sword. The drow heaved a soft sigh and spoke in a low tone inaudible to anyone but herself.

“I hate politics.”

< Previous Chapter                                                                                                                           Next Chapter >