Tag Archives: Merry Lang

13 – 1

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“Mission accomplished,” Merry announced, planting the butt of her lance on the floor. “We have successfully reported to this empty conference room. What’s next, Sarge?”

“What I know, you know,” Principia said, uncharacteristically terse. “And keep a lid on the attitude, private. We were ordered here for a reason, and you sassing out of turn in front of the bronze will result in them landing on my neck. Guess how many times that headache will be magnified before I pass it on down to you?”

Merry cleared her throat and shifted to attention. “Apologies, Sergeant.”

“You’re both turning into actual soldiers,” Ephanie said with a small smile. “It’s quite touching. And a little bizarre.”

“Thank you, my loyal and dedicated XO,” Principia replied, sighing.

Nandi cleared her throat. “Someone approaching. Those are Rouvad’s footsteps.”

Principia’s eyes cut to her momentarily, but she didn’t bother to ask if she was certain. “Attention!”

The entire squad, already lined up along one side of the small conference room, snapped to attention as ordered. And there they stood. It was another half a minute before the door opened—suddenly, to those who lacked elven hearing—and High Commander Rouvad stepped in, alone. She paused, glancing across them with an unreadable expression, then shut the door.

“Sergeant Locke,” the Commander said curtly, “remove your insignia.”

Principia hesitated barely an instant before reaching up to detach the striped pin from her pauldron. It gave her a moment to think, as they were designed not to come off accidentally during battle. She’d done nothing court-martial worthy, and anyway, it wouldn’t be standard policy to have her whole squad report to an out-of-the-way spot like this and watch if she were about to be demoted or something…

“I apologize for the lack of ceremony, but everything will be made clear soon,” Commander Rouvad said, reaching up to begin attaching a new pin to the now-bare spot on Principia’s shoulder. “Principia Locke, you are advanced to the rank of Lieutenant, effective immediately. My congratulations.” She took a step back.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting and concealing her bemusement. This she had not been expecting; that promotion should have followed either an act of conspicuous valor or another year of service…

“Conceal your old pin, Lieutenant,” Rouvad ordered. “And the rest of you are not to reveal the circumstances of this promotion, in general but particularly to any of the women you are about to meet. As far as anyone needs to know, Locke has held this rank for a suitably long period. Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am!” the squad chorused, saluting.

Rouvad nodded once. “Good. You will now report to the west sub-basement assembly room B to be briefed on your next mission. Afterward, Locke, I want you to return here and meet me while Corporal Avelea prepares your squad for departure.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said crisply.

The High Commander nodded again. “Dismissed, ladies. I’ll see you below in not more than five minutes.”

She turned and strode out through the door opposite the one they had come in.

“Well…you heard the woman,” Principia said, stepping toward the other exit. “West sub-basement assembly room B. Which is…?”

“Follow me,” Nandi said with a smile as they exited into the hall. “And congratulations, Locke.”

“Yeah, congrats, Sar—I mean, LT,” Farah added brightly, followed by a chorus of agreement from the others.

“This may present an operational obstacle for the squad, though,” Ephanie added gravely. “We’ve been relying rather heavily on your personal expertise, Locke, but you are now required by all protocol and military tradition to know nothing.”

“I don’t know when you decided to become a comedian, Avelea, but you’re lucky you already have a job.”

They were on the ground floor in the western wing already; it was a journey involving two flights of stairs and one right turn, taking no more than three minutes, before they approached a door currently guarded by two Legionnaires. Nandi fell back, letting Principia take the lead. As they neared, the soldiers shifted to cross their lances across the door.

“Name and squad,” barked one, staring expressionlessly at Principia.

“Locke, Principia, Squad 391.”

Both immediately returned their lances to the upright position and the soldier on the right, who had spoken, saluted; the other, having her lance in her right hand, simply remained at attention. Principia saluted back, then pulled open the door and stepped through.

Casey was the last in and shut it behind them, and then the squad clustered together, falling automatically into parade rest. The assembly room was large, and no less than six other squads were already present—fully-sized units of at least twelve women each. Squad 391 were not only the last to arrive, but the smallest group by far, and gathered several curious stares.

Before anyone could speak or approach them, however, the door on the auditorium’s low dais opened and Commander Rouvad herself emerged. Everyone immediately stood at attention and saluted.

“At ease,” Rouvad said in a clipped tone, striding to the center of the platform after sweeping one quick look around the room. “This mission and everything about to be discussed in this briefing are classified. You are being mobilized in response to a crisis, ladies. The Fourth Silver Legion has been completely neutralized.” The stir which went around the room was subdued considering that news, discipline relaxed only to the extent of a few indrawn breaths and shifted boots. “Along with a supporting group of Salyrites from all four Colleges who were assisting with their last mission. They have suffered only a dozen fatalities, but all surviving personnel are afflicted with a malady clearly magical in nature and are unable to act.”

She paused, shoulders shifting slightly with a deep breath.

“The situation is this. A small cult has been active in Puna Dara over the last year, known locally as the Rust. Our intelligence from Punaji territory is sporadic at best, but what we do know is that these Rust are set apart from the average run of fringe religions by the practice of grafting machine parts onto their bodies—and in some cases, replacing their limbs entirely. Reports vary and some are difficult to believe, but there is strong indication that these mechanical additions grant them physical and magical power beyond the human norm. And they are, by necessity, magical in nature, because there is no purely mechanical technology which can achieve the effects described.

“Four weeks ago, I was alerted by the Archpope and the Imperial government that both had suffered incursions of some kind.” Her expression became distinctly annoyed. “These reports were frustratingly vague, as they concerned matters which are highly classified by both organizations, but in both cases, they involved artifacts of the Elder Gods in storage by the Church and the government being abruptly activated to potentially deadly effect. The Archpope believes, on the strength of intelligence he declined to share with me, that the Rust were responsible. The Empire did not repeat this assertion, but offered tacit support to an investigation of the matter.

“At issue is the nature of Punaji politics and culture. Their windshamans see to most of the spiritual needs of their people; only a few cults have a presence in Puna Dara, all very small, and the Church has none. Naphthene is the only Pantheon goddess revered there, and she has no actual worshipers. More specifically, the Empire is not able to act unilaterally in Punaji territory per the terms of their treaty, and the Punaji government is unwilling to accept overt help from Tiraas on any internal matter, which would apparently make King Rajakhan look weak and invite dissent—or so he clearly thinks. It is therefore a testament to how seriously he takes this matter that the King agreed to host the Fourth and an attached party of Salyrites to assist in investigating this cult and taking whatever action he deemed necessary.”

Again, she paused to breathe before continuing.

“Immediately upon entering the mountain tunnel leading to Puna Dara, the entire Legion and their companions were struck by a plague. Immediately, and simultaneously, in a fashion totally unlike the normal progression of any disease. The symptoms are severe physical weakness, exhaustion, and lethargy; several perished due to the aggravation of preexisting conditions, but overall the effect seems designed to neutralize victims without killing them. Those afflicted were evacuated to Rodvenheim for treatment, where they have remained stable. The condition appears not to be contagious, and shows no sign of either worsening or abating. I simply have an entire Legion apparently cursed, by an effect which has resisted all efforts at diagnosis, much less treatment. We have not even identified the vector for the affliction. The Fourth reports they were not attacked or even approached prior to being struck down.

“It is obvious,” Rouvad said grimly, “that this was in response to the threat of a major Avenist presence in Puna Dara, and at this point we are considering the Archpope’s theory the correct one: the Rust have hitherto unseen capabilities, are extremely dangerous, and have grave ambitions, or at the very least a willingness to exercise significant power when threatened. Rajakhan’s stipulations remain in place, and with this force active in the streets of his city I firmly agree that the stability of the Punaji nation needs to be preserved. The Empire is still barred from intervening—for now. Tiraas will not suffer a hostile force to overthrow an ally with whom it shares a border, which means that eliminating this threat will be necessary to prevent an outright war of conquest.

“The Church is not acting directly, either, but organizing the cults who have volunteered personnel to go to Puna Dara and assist. After the disaster which struck the Fourth, all insertions into the city are being undertaken with careful discretion. We do not know how the Rust identifies threats, nor how they achieved this retaliation, so we cannot expect every attempt to succeed. However, the Thieves’ Guild and the Huntsmen of Shaath are sending agents to assist; the Guild already has a small presence in Puna Dara. The Collegium of Salyrene is dispatching more agents, far more carefully this time. I have been notified less formally that Omnist monks and several miscellaneous Vidian personnel are making their way to Puna Dara. It was not made clear to me exactly how they intend to help. And then, of course, I am sending you.”

She nodded to each squad in turn as she addressed them. “Each of you is a Squad One of your respective cohorts. Squads 221, 241, and 611 are dedicated rangers. You will attempt to enter Puna Dara unseen via the difficult mountain passes leading to it from the surrounding Stalrange and Dwarnskolds. Squad 351 are clerics and healers, and will proceed to the city via ship; I will be making it clear, with the cooperation of the Punaji government, that your mission is pure humanitarian relief, which will hopefully not invite retaliation by the Rust. Squad 371 are more diverse spellcasters and will attempt insertion via teleportation. Squad 211 are dark ops. You know what to do. And finally, Squad 391 are part of a diplomatic and interfaith cooperation initiative. Your method of insertion I will leave to the discretion of your commanding officer.

“Once you enter the city, those of you who succeed in doing so will find one another and coordinate without assembling at the sole Avenist temple in Puna Dara. The temple has not been attacked or otherwise disrupted by the Rust, and you will not draw their attention to it. The exception will be Squad 351; you would create suspicion by not assigning yourselves there, and so that is where you will go. All of you will link up, establish communication and cooperation with one another, the participating cults—specifically the Eserites, Shaathists, and Salyrites—and the Punaji government. Your chain of command is as follows: Lieutenant Locke of Squad 391 will command this operation in the field and be responsible for determining, organizing and executing a course of action. In Locke’s absence, Lieutenant Ansari of Squad 611 will take command, followed by Lieutenant Intu of 211, Lieutenant Raazh of 241, Lieutenant Carstairs of 371, and Sergeant Steinbrenner of 221. Captain Ombanwa, your squad will remain based primarily at the temple, and provide support to the mission as Locke or her successors require, but your goal is humanitarian and in the event of mission failure I want you to be able to distance yourselves and continue working without having to evacuate. That means, Locke, that the healers will be under your orders, but you are to leave them be until and unless you have a specific need for their services. There are Omnist, Salyrite, Izarite, and Vidian temples in Puna Dara—small ones, and only one of each faith, but they will provide starting points from which to locate one another. There is no permanent Shaathist presence and the Guild’s safehouse is of course not publicly known; you will have to find them as well, Locke.”

She paused once more to frown and inhale deeply.

“Your mission, ladies, is first and foremost reconnaissance. I want you to find out the goals, capabilities, and character of the Rust in as much detail as possible. What you learn will determine your next course of action. You are under no circumstances to politically destabilize the Punaji nation, nor endanger the established or visiting personnel of the other cults which are offering assistance. You will also, within the tolerances of those goals, protect your own welfare. We are frighteningly in the dark, ladies; this mission is perforce an open-ended one. If, having done the above, you deem it necessary to withdraw and report back, do so; if you choose to take more aggressive action, take steps to ensure that whatever you have learned is transmitted back here so that the Sisterhood’s next actions will not be taken in this same state of blindness. However, if you find the chance to end the Rust, do whatever you have to. They have struck down our own in large numbers; I have no desire to normalize relations or continue to tolerate their existence. Lieutenant Locke, I expect you to listen to the recommendations of the other squad leaders, but ultimately, the determination is yours.

“Dossiers have been compiled with all known details on this situation, which will be issued for you to read en route to Puna Dara. You will fully absorb this information and destroy them before arriving.” Rouvad gave them a beat of silence before asking, “Questions?”

There was a momentary pause, before the officer she had indicated as Lieutenant Intu spoke in a quiet tone. “Based on the reports from the Archpope and the Empire, are we assuming these Rust to have some connection to the Elder Gods?”

“We are assuming nothing,” Rouvad replied. “I consider that prospect remote, despite the suggestive connection. You will reconnoiter and answer these questions yourself before taking direct action.”

Lieutenant Ansari cleared her throat. “I mean no disrespect, Commander, to you or Lieutenant Locke, but who is she, and why is she to command this mission?”

“Your lack of disrespect is noted, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said flatly. “It is a fair concern. Squad 391 is, as I said, a unit with a diplomatic mandate; its members have connections to multiple cults and have been training specifically to cooperate and coordinate with them. As you will be relying on compatriots from other cults, including some with which the Sisterhood has historically poor relations, that experience will be immediately relevant to your success. Principia Locke, specifically, is relatively new to the Legions, but she has earned my trust. She is also two and a half centuries old, a highly seasoned adventurer, and a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. I would place a more experienced officer in command of a straightforward military exercise. This mission, however, requires lateral thinking and adaptability more than military strategy, and I judge her the woman for the job. Am I clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ansari said, nodding.

The Commander gave them another moment, sweeping her eyes again across the group, and then nodded her head once. “You have your orders, then. Each squad will move out on its own, as soon as you are able, and regroup in Puna Dara with as many of your sisters as are able to make it. Goddess watch over you, soldiers. Dismissed.”

All seven squads saluted her in unison, then turned and began filing toward the doors. Squad 391, having been the last to arrive, were closest to one of the entrances and thus the first into the hall.

“I’ll meet you back at the cabin,” Principia said to them. “I trust you’ll have everybody ready, Corporal.”

“Count on it, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply. “How are we to proceed?”

“I’ll have an insertion strategy by the time I rejoin you. Just get yourselves squared away and be ready to improvise.”

Ephanie saluted, then turned on her heel. “Forward march, ladies.”

Principia watched them go for a moment, then glanced at the other soldiers now emerging from the assembly room. Several of them studied her with open speculation, before she turned and followed her squad. At the top of the stairs, she diverged from their course, heading back toward the small conference room where Rouvad had ordered them to meet her.

She waited only a few minutes before Rouvad rejoined her.

“At ease,” the High Commander said upon being saluted. “Well, Locke, since it’s likely to be some time before we speak again and it’s been two weeks since I had a progress report, how are your permanent projects coming along?”

“Training and practice is proceeding to my satisfaction,” Principia said. “Being an experimental squad, we don’t really have a yardstick against which to measure our progress, but the members of my squad have done well at sharing the benefits of their respective histories, and I’ve moved beyond that to actively seeking out opportunities to help other cults, and build connections.”

“Yes, Captain Dijanerad complained about having to put her foot down. It seems a handful of temples have made a point of requesting you specifically for guard duty.”

“Being out of the city for a while should hopefully wean them off the habit,” Principia said with the faintest smile. “With regard to my ongoing projects, I am similarly plugging away at the firing surface problem. I’ve no way of telling how close I am to a solution; all I can do is try things, and then try other things when they fail. It may not ultimately be practical to create a lance head which functions equally well as a bladed weapon and an energy weapon, at least not with the current state of modern enchanting. I have some more theories to test before I give up on that, but it may prove necessary to either make that two separate weapons or accept a loss of efficacy in one or the other function.”

Rouvad nodded. “And your other weapons project?”

“There, Eivery and I have had a recent breakthrough. We still haven’t figured out exactly how, but it’s become clear that dwarven device is augmented somehow through magic or alchemy. The projectile we recovered appears, to all our scrying, to be a simple lead ball, but we discovered by testing our own prototype that when you subject a metal as soft as lead to the kinds of forces involved, it turns into a sort of smudge. There are mundane tests we can run, but they tend to be more destructive, and I’m hesitant to dismantle our only sample, especially now that we know there’s an unidentified magical element at work.”

“Mm,” Rouvad said noncommittally. “Any headway in improving the device?”

“Well, it’s not very accurate,” Principia said thoughtfully. “Even less so than a comparably-sized lightning wand, and has nothing on the accuracy of an enchanter wand. I do have a theory about that. Arrows are fletched in a spiraling pattern to make them spin while in flight, which stabilizes then and increases the accuracy of the projectile.”

“Odd that the dwarves didn’t think of that.”

“Dwarves have never used projectile weapons, ma’am; between their innate hardiness and the heavy armor their forces have always favored, arrows have never made much impact on them, and they never bothered to use them on others. Projectile weapons are of limited use in tunnels and the dwarves have very seldom come out to fight anybody except to defend their own realms. They may simply not realize that lateral rotation stabilizes objects in flight. The scientific method doesn’t help you with things on which you haven’t experimented. Then again, they may just not have gotten around to it yet; this is clearly a very new technology. Regardless, I think shaping the projectile in a spiral of some kind will help with that, but it presents its own challenges. Metal balls are simple to cast; a more complex shape is trickier. It will also unavoidably make the ammunition more fragile.”

“Mm.” The Commander pursed her lips. “What if you shaped the firing mechanism rather than the projectile? Say, with spiraling grooves on the inside of the firing tube. That would be sturdier and needs to be done fewer times, and would make even a spherical projectile spin, which should help.”

Principia stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded. “That…actually would probably work. Well…blast. Now I regret I’m off to fight cultists instead of trying that out.”

“With regard to that,” Rouvad said, heaving a soft sigh. “I assume you understand the reason for your abrupt promotion, now. I trust you to have the wits to put that together, even without the help of Ansari’s rather pointed question.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied, nodding. “You can’t have a sergeant giving orders to lieutenants.”

“In point of fact I can, as Corporal Avelea could explain to you in detail, but I would rather not. Every one of those squads is seasoned and highly distinguished; every one of the women leading it has the chops to command more than seven squads on one mission. If a viable alternative exists I prefer not to insult them. Anyway, it’s sooner than I would ordinarily have had you promoted, but I would not have done this if I doubted you could handle the responsibility. I’ve placed you in charge of three captains, Locke, though with the exception of Ombanwa they are accustomed to taking temporary grade reductions for situations precisely like this one. The only reason each of those officers is not commanding a much larger unit by now is because they are all highly specialized and serve extremely well in their current positions. And then, there is your squad. All six of you, with individual records far too short to be so spotty.”

“Shahai notwithstanding,” Principia agreed. “Commander… I’m not going to question your judgment, but honestly I’m more surprised by this than Ansari was.”

“Well, we’ve made some progress if you’re not questioning my judgment.” Rouvad’s wry expression quickly faded into sobriety, however. “I’m not going to claim a great deal of affection for you, but in your relatively short time here, you’ve proved you can get things done, under great pressure and in uncertain conditions. In fact, that is where you thrive, you and your squad. You’re the right one to organize this mission. And…more to the point, I am fully confident that you will make it into Puna Dara.” The Commander hesitated, then turned her head to stare at the wall. “We have no idea how the Rust identifies or strikes its enemies. No way to know what methods will get through this defense. This strategy, trying multiple tactics to see what works, carries the presupposition that some of them won’t. I am sending good women straight to their likely deaths. Even if they use the same non-lethal methods, the situations in which they risk being incapacitated…”

“That’s the job, Commander,” Principia said quietly. “Ours to die in Avei’s name, yours to order it. We all signed up. We all serve.”

Rouvad’s gaze flicked back to her, and sharpened. “A year ago, I think I would have punched you in the mouth for saying that.”

“A year ago, you wouldn’t have believed I was serious.” Principia did not go so far as to smile, but her expression softened. “And no, Commander, you’re far too disciplined to do such a thing. You would have ordered someone to punch me in the mouth.”

She shook her head. “Goddess preserve me, Locke… Well, it is what it is. The other reason I called you here was to issue you a piece of equipment.”

Rouvad reached inside the neck of her tunic and pulled out a golden eagle talisman on a simple chain, which she lifted over her head and held it out to Principia.

“That,” the Commander explained while the elf studied the piece, “is a divine power augmentor, operating on fae energy. For a priestess, it would boost the amount of energy she could handle before risking burnout considerably. For someone with no divine ability at all…well, it may theoretically grant that power, without needing a connection to the goddess.”

“Theoretically?” Principia murmured.

“Experiment with it on your way to Puna Dara. You’re an enchanter; if anyone can make it work, you can. Trissiny recovered that thing from the Crawl last year; who knows how long it was lost down there. Mary the Crow showed up not long after to claim that she was the one who created it, and said that it will work with the most strength for someone of her bloodline. I’d been thinking of giving it back to Trissiny with that information, but frankly, no magical doodad is going to augment a paladin’s connection to the goddess all that much. You are the person who can gain the most from that device, so I am issuing it to you. Because,” she added almost reluctantly, “to my great surprise, you have earned enough of my trust and respect to warrant it. And because I am sending you and your troops into unknowable peril; I want you to carry every advantage I’m able to give you, which isn’t much. But there it is.”

Principia very carefully tucked the icon into one of her belt pouches, then saluted. “Thank you, Commander. I’ll do my best not to disappoint.”

“I believe you.” Rouvad stepped forward, then reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Goddess watch over you, Locke…and good luck out there. Dismissed.”

 

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11 – 37

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

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

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

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

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

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

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

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

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

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

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

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

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

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

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

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

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

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

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

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

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

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

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

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

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

“Unbelievable.”

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

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

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

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

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

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

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

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

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

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

“…yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

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

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

Meesie chirped smugly.

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

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

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

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

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11 – 12

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The central temple of Ryneas in Tiraas was a sprawling structure of multiple wings, arranged to divide different areas neatly and leave open courtyards between them. Most of these were rather dour places at this time of year, their flower beds dormant and trees starkly leafless, though several held exhibitions of statuary. The temple itself had a notably utilitarian design, attractive in its stonework but arranged in simple, squared patterns that made it easy to navigate. Architecture was among the crafts valued and taught by the Rynean faith, and among other things, that meant they had great respect for usefulness in design. There were sacred buildings which were, themselves, works of art, but in a temple designed primarily to display other art, the focus of the architect had been on making that art accessible.

Just because everything was accessible did not mean everything was equally popular, of course. Principia’s invitation had specified the Ajitram Gallery; it was somewhat out of the way, on the fourth floor of one of the side wings, but she didn’t fully grasp the reasoning until finding the directory in the main lobby. The gallery in question was currently hosting an exhibition of the works of Arthur Croswin, the first such to be held since his death forty years ago.

Unless a lot had changed in the art world in forty years, nobody was going to beat down the doors to see that. Whoever had sent that invitation, they’d done research before laying plans.

Squad One attracted a few curious looks as they marched through the halls, as well as a couple of disapproving ones from curators in the tasteful uniforms of the Rynean cult, but one benefit of the charms Principia had worked into their boots was that they made far less noise on stone floors than half a dozen people in armor ought to. At any rate, they managed not to disrupt anyone’s perusal of the art on display, and apparently, that was what mattered.

Rather than splitting up the squad to cover the accesses to the fourth floor Ajitram Gallery, of which there were two, Principia stationed the rest of the group at the foot of the steps she chose to climb. Whether they responded to a call for help would depend entirely on Nandi, so sending anyone out of easy range of her voice was pointless.

Nandi touched her lightly on the arm as she began climbing the steps. Principia paused and glanced back at her, but then just nodded and continued going.

Ajitram Gallery was a single hall, running the length of one side of that floor, with staircases on either end and two cross-halls leading deeper into the building to other galleries. At present, it was fully lined with oil paintings in a distinctive blurry style, which were rather pleasing to the eye from a distance but became increasingly fuzzy the closer one examined them. Her own eyes were at something of a disadvantage in appreciating the style; she had to concentrate on blurring her vision to see the overall effect and not the tiny smudges and blobs.

The entire gallery was empty, save for one person. She stood in a pose any soldier would recognize, straight-backed with her hands clasped behind her, brown hair tied in a simple braid hanging down the back of her slightly scruffy leather coat. By all appearances, she was studying a large pastoral scene.

Principia carefully approached from the side; it wasn’t as if she had much chance of sneaking up in armor, anyway, and it gave her the opportunity to observe her target’s face, rather than risk coming up behind her only to learn that this was a stranger about to spring a trap.

It wasn’t.

“I like this,” Jasmine mused when Principia came finally to stand beside her. “I’m not sure why. I certainly don’t understand it.”

“It’s called impressionism,” Principia said noncommittally. “Never really caught on. I’m actually surprised so many of Croswin’s works were preserved and collected. The man was a lunatic.”

“Not to your taste, I gather?” Jasmine said wryly.

“No, but that’s beside the point. An elf’s eyes are at a disadvantage here; I see too many details to properly appreciate it. But no, I knew Croswin. The man was brilliant and ahead of his time…but also completely nuts, and quite frankly, an asshole. I’m glad someone’s collected and still displays his work, though. Probably no one outside the Rynean cult really digs it, but that’s not nothing.”

Finally, the younger woman shifted her head slightly to look at her—sidelong, but it was something. “So. Three Nine One. A Squad One designation. Are congratulations or sympathies in order?”

“At the risk of sounding greedy, I’ll take one of each,” Principia said lightly. “We are being generously given the opportunity to succeed… With the firm understanding that we’re expected to dramatically fail.”

“We?”

“I have a rather…unusual group of women in my command. All except Shahai were fobbed off as undesirables. Refugees from other cults, and one plea bargain case who’s here instead of in jail.”

Jasmine’s eyes narrowed slightly in an expression of mistrust. “Clustering them together would not be Legion policy.”

“I am well aware of that.” Principia sighed. “We’re… Well, I’ll tell you the story if you want, though parts are classified. It’s definitely an unusual situation. But is that really what you asked me here to talk about?”

Jasmine looked at her in silence from the corner of her eye for a long moment, then returned her gaze to the painting. Her eyes were unfocused now, though, clearly not fixed on the art. Principia waited in patient silence; finally, Jasmine stepped back and away, turning to face her fully, and folded her arms.

“What are you doing, Principia?”


“And that’s it,” Shahai said softly, turning to face the others with a slight smile. “It was a genuine invitation.”

The squad relaxed slightly, though several still wore quizzical expressions.

“So, uh.” Merry shrugged. “What’s going on, then, exactly?”

“Now,” said Nandi, glancing up the stairs, “our sergeant needs to have a private conversation.”

“And I guess we need to head back home, then,” said Farah.

Nandi shook her head. “Locke said that would be advisable, but it wasn’t an order. In fact, she left no specific orders for this situation; her concern was if it turned out to be a trap. Which means our next move is up to Corporal Avelea?”

The others turned expectantly to Ephanie, who frowned faintly in thought.

“Am I correct, Shahai, in inferring that you know more than the rest of us about what’s going on up there?”

“Yes,” Nandi replied with the ghost of a smile. “I don’t mean to keep you in the dark, but the decision is Locke’s. When she’s done, we’ll see what she wants everyone to know.”

Ephanie nodded impatiently. “In your estimation, is there any danger?”

“On the contrary,” the elf said dryly, “she is probably safer up there than she has been at any point in the last year.”

“Then the only issue would be that they might be interrupted,” Ephanie said. “All right, ladies, since Sarge failed to tell us otherwise and it’s not in me to leave a woman behind without good reason, we’re going to form a perimeter. Elwick, Szaravid, stay here. Lang, you’re with me; we’ll cover the other staircase. Shahai, circle around to the next hallway, take the stairs up and patrol the gallery beyond this one.”

Merry cleared her throat pointedly. “All due respect, ma’am, I don’t think we have the right to prevent people from entering the gallery. Trying sounds like a good way to start trouble with the Ryneans.”

“You’re correct, Lang, and everyone keep it in mind,” Ephanie agreed, nodding. “We’re not going to interfere with any patrons of the museum in any way. We will, however, keep an eye on who goes in and be ready to respond to…anything. Shahai, I’m giving you the most porous front due to your hearing and the fact that I don’t anticipate any danger.”

Nandi saluted, still with that little smile.

“All right, girls, you’ve got your orders,” Ephanie said firmly. “Move out.”


“Just what you said,” Principia replied quietly. “Gaining an understanding of your world.”

Jasmine closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. “The way I remember it, I told you specifically not to do that. It isn’t your life or your path, Locke. Trying to force yourself into it won’t lead you anywhere good.”

“Yes, well, I’m generally not good at doing what I’m told,” Principia said cheerfully.

“And so you joined the military?”

The elf actually laughed. “It’s not so bad. Different, yes, but the rules and chain of command aren’t a major factor in the actual problems I’ve been having. Anyway… I really did need to, Jasmine.”

“Hm. I’d sort of expected you’d call me…”

“Hsst!” Principia held up a hand, frowning. “When you’re under cover, you stay under it. Never assume there are no listeners just because you don’t see any.”

“Right,” she said with a sigh. “Still. I don’t see why you needed to do this.”

“Just as I said: to understand. There are things you really can’t grasp without doing them, putting yourself in a position to see from another perspective. I gather you’re becoming aware of that, yourself.”

Jasmine frowned. “I never wanted you to upend your life for my sake.”

“Hey, this was all my own choice; I’m not pinning anything on you. Whatever else you may think of me, know that I don’t shirk the responsibility for anything I’ve done. Besides,” she added more gently, “this is not nearly the imposition you seem to assume it is. Elves have a different relationship with time; a few years out of my life to do a few tours of duty is not a hardship, and not much of a cost. It’s well worth it for the perspective alone.”

“I know what they do to elves who enlist,” Jasmine said, still frowning. “That is a major commitment. The alchemy involved makes you stronger at the cost of your agility and speed. You may not get along with your own family, but don’t pretend it’s not a big deal to be made less of an elf over this.”

The corner of Principia’s mouth drew up in a sly smile. “I see no one’s explained elven biology to you in any detail.”

“In fact, I have been looking into it,” she said irritably. “Since it turns out to be relevant to my life, to my surprise.”

“Well, never assume an elf is physically weak just because we tend to be. It is harder for elves to gain physical strength than for humans, but when we do, it doesn’t show in bulkier muscles.”

“How much harder?”

“A lot,” she said frankly. “A very great lot harder, which is a big part of why few bother. It takes a good seventy years of consistent, devoted training to match a human for strength, and that’s about the point where it plateaus; very, very old elven warriors may be stronger than orcs, but warriors of any race tend not to live that long. Really, only braves of the plains tribes bother, as a rule. Woodkin prefer to play to their natural strengths.”

“And you?” Jasmine asked pointedly.

Principia smiled, a placid yet smug expression. “I passed the physical strictly on my own merits, no alchemy needed. Took me a good hundred and thirty years to train up to that point, due to a less than rigorous schedule, but considering I’m a thief as well as a skinny elf and nobody expects me to be able to punch out a drunken sailor… That alone makes it a worthwhile ability to have. When everyone knows the limits of your power, your days are numbered.”

“I see,” Jasmine said, studying her skeptically. “So this is neither a great hardship nor a particularly great gesture.”

“That’s pretty much it, yep,” Principia replied brightly.

Jasmine turned away and paced slowly down the hall, coming to rest in front of the next painting, this one of a mountainous horizon at sunset. Principia followed, matching her aimless gait and not stepping close enough to be pushy.

“So,” the elf said after a few moments of silence, “is that all you wanted to ask me?”

Jasmine sighed. “Well, I’ve certainly been curious about it, ever since I first saw you in that armor. But… I actually wanted to ask for your help.”

“What can I do?” Principia asked immediately.

She glanced suspiciously at her. “Let me state up front that I’m not interested in cutting any deals. If you want something in exchange for your advice, I am very unlikely to be interested.”

Principia sighed heavily. “Well. I guess we both know I deserved that. No…Jasmine. No deals. Tell me what you need, and if it’s something I can help you with, I will. No strings, no tricks, just…whatever I can do.”

Jasmine studied her for another long moment, then turned back to the painting.

“I…am trying to learn to be a better…” She glanced up and down the empty hall. “Well, to be better at what I do. And while I respect what the Sisterhood taught me, I’ve been learning more and more that I cannot go through life as I have been and expect to succeed. I keep finding myself…outmaneuvered. My inclination, both by personality and by training, is to fight when opposed. And that’s a losing strategy. The world is all about soft power, about connections, not force. That’s what I’m doing in the Guild. Eserites are sly, underhanded, and careful. What they know is what I need to learn.”

“I see.”

Jasmine glanced over at her again. “You’re not shocked?”

“Shocked would be putting it strongly, though I can’t say I expected this.” Prinipia shook her head, her eyes never leaving the girl’s. “Whatever else comes of this, and acknowledging my own bias, here… For my money, the fact that you’re making the effort makes you the best Hand of Avei since Laressa.”

“What happened to cover and listening ears?”

Principia waved a hand dismissively. “Lesson two: rules are for other people. There’s nobody within even elvish earshot except my snooping corporal who I’m not going to bother calling down since she’s the most discreet person I know. But seriously. I’m no pacifist either, but in all of history, Laressa was the only paladin of Avei who looked for solutions to her problems beyond ‘put a sword in it.’ And her methods probably wouldn’t work for you, but what matters is that you’re trying. You see the world has changed, and you’re changing to meet it. I get the impression you’re not feeling very good about your efforts right now, but just the fact that you’re making them means you’re ahead of the game.”

“This isn’t a game,” Jasmine replied, though her expression softened somewhat. “But…thank you. That helps a little bit.”

“It doesn’t sound like encouragement was what you went to all this trouble to get, though,” Principia commented, tilting her head inquisitively.

Jasmine sighed, turned away, and paced across the hall to stare sightlessly at another painting on the other side. “I haven’t been at it long, but the issue I’m having is, well, persistent. I just don’t get it.”

“Getting takes time,” Principia pointed out.

Jasmine shook her head impatient. “No, I mean… Ugh. Look, have you ever been in one of the old dungeons? Or something else…weird?”

“I have seen shit in my time that would flummox even Arachne,” the elf said with a grin. “Though as a rule I prefer to stay out of dungeons, and did even before they were all snapped up by the gnomes and the Empire. All loot, no purpose; I steal out of a philosophical imperative, not because I want money. Why do you ask?”

“Down in the Crawl,” she said, still scowling at the painting, “there’s a…place. Professor Tellwyrn had a name for it, but I can’t recall. It shows you things, possibilities of other lives. Deepest fears, and scenarios meant to disrupt your complacency. When my class was down there, it… Well, it sort of replaced me.”

Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Replaced?”

“Temporarily,” Jasmine said hastily. “And when it was over I was left with the full memory of the experience, of living as that other me. But for that time, I wasn’t me as I am. I was…an alternate me. One who had been raised by you.”

“I…see,” she said very slowly, frowning. “That must have been…”

“It really was,” Jasmine said fervently. “But at the same time, it was a worthwhile experience. There was a good lesson, there. That other girl…” She shook her head in frustration. “I can’t recall the details of her life, I don’t have her memories. I think all this would be a lot easier if I did. Maybe I wouldn’t have to bother with all this. But I remember, briefly, being her. The way she lived, and felt, and thought… Her means of always looking at angles instead of straight ahead like I do. The joy she found in cleverness and…well, defiance. She was a model Eserite: smart, sneaky, and loving every minute of it. She wouldn’t have gotten constantly tricked by the Black Wreath the way I seem to. But I can’t remember.” Her voice climbed half an octave in frustration. “It’s there, just the tantalizing hint to show me I have the capacity somewhere inside, or did once. But whenever I try to work out a way to do what she did, all I get is what I want to do, what I’ve always been trained to, which is to fight. And it’s only been a few days but I keep butting my head against that! I can learn to pick pockets and locks, but everyone keeps trying to make me an enforcer, to work on the skills I already have. I’m wasting my time here and—”

“Hey.” Principia took two steps forward, and finally reached out to touch her, laying a gauntleted hand on Jasmine’s shoulder. “Stop. Right now what you’re doing is torturing yourself. Quit it, breathe, and come back at this when you’re calmer.”

Jasmine obligingly drew in a deep breath and let it out, then another. After a few more repetitions, she turned to face the older woman, gently dislodging her hand. “Well. Thanks. Anyway… Did I manage to make any kind of point in there?”

“Yes, you did,” Principia nodded, “and right off the bat, I can tell you are making this harder for yourself than it needs to be. Look… You see this as some kind of great contradiction, don’t you? Having to reach out and embrace a completely alien viewpoint.”

“Maybe not alien,” Jasmine said, shrugging, “but certainly an opposite one.”

“Now there,” Principia stated, pointing at her, “is where you are wrong. That’s an extremely Avenist perspective, and it’s wrong. Take it from someone who has been living out an eerie mirror of what you’re doing for the last year. There’s not a huge difference between the Sisterhood and the Guild. They’re two organizations with exactly the same goal, who disagree on the methods of achieving it. That’s all.”

Jasmine stared at her, blinked twice, then frowned heavily. “You may need to explain that.”

Principia grinned. “It’s all about justice, in the end. Stopping those who mistreat others, and getting restitution for their victims. That’s really the ultimate purpose of both cults. Aside from the little quibble over methods, they’re left not redundant because they operate in different spheres. The Sisterhood’s goals promote an orderly society, which is necessary; the Guild deals with those who weasel their way around society’s rules. Also necessary, because nothing stops those bastards from cropping up; like rats, they just have to be dealt with. Eserites couldn’t maintain a stable living order for the general public, and the Sisterhood is too bound by its principles to catch everybody who needs catching. But in the end? You and I are in the same business. Always have been, and we’re neither of us in a different business for having swapped cults.”

“I think that’s taking it a little far,” Jasmien protested. “Avenists protect. Eserites steal.”

Principia held up a finger. “Eserites steal from those who deserve it. That makes all the difference.”

“Are you really going to argue that no one works under the Guild just to enrich themselves?”

“Of course not. There are bad apples in every barrel; I think part of your problem here is that in addition to imagining a great contradiction that isn’t there, you’re imagining the Sisterhood as something inherently more pure than the Guild. It is not. Both are organizations with similar goals, doing the best they can toward those goals with the means at their disposal.”

“But the people within them…”

“I’ve been in the Legions a little less than a year,” Principia said flatly. “In that time, I’ve had to fend off someone very highly placed in the Sisterhood who attempted to murder my entire squad. Because she found us politically inconvenient and a threat to her power base. She is still in a position of authority over us, and countless others.”

Jasmine stared at her. “You’re…exaggerating.”

“I assure you,” the elf said grimly, “I am not. Oh, it didn’t start with murder; few people are ax-crazy enough to go for blood right away. It started with bureaucratic manipulation. As you pointed out, it isn’t usual policy to lump together the misfits and undesirables into one understaffed squad. But when we kept refusing to fail and get drummed out of the Legions, it escalated, until we found ourselves manipulated into a confrontation with some very angry Shaathists who’d have been quite justified—in their minds, of course—in filling us with arrows.”

“That—what—how—”

“Yes, there are bad Eserites,” Principia said quietly. “No shortage of them. And there are plenty of bad Avenists. The differing natures of those cults acquired different kinds of bad people; a rowdy troublemaker would get nowhere in the Sisterhood, and a string-pulling politician wouldn’t last long in the Guild. But in the end, all systems are corrupt.”

Again, she reached out to lay a hand gently on Jasmine’s shoulder; this time, the girl didn’t move away.

“That doesn’t mean you abandon the systems, though,” Principia said gently. “People need systems in order to function in a civilized manner. You just have to have someone watching for the abusers. Avenists and Eserites both do that. And they both accidentally provide safe haven for exactly the kinds of monsters they exist to fight, which is why they also have to watch themselves, and each other. But despite how it often seems to the cult which keeps having to haul Eserites off to jail, they aren’t enemies. The world is better off when we work together.

“All that’s fairly abstract, though. As for you, and the problem you’re having now… I think you’re letting the seeming enormity of this matter confuse you. The truth is, strategy is strategy, and it’s applicable in a variety of places. It’s a very small shift you need to achieve. You don’t need to throw away the lessons of your youth to be an Eserite, you just need to find new ways to apply them.”

“But…that leaves me right where I was,” Jasmine said plaintively. “Being the thing I’ve always been, not finding a subtler way.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Principia said, smiling but implacable. “You’re doing exactly the right thing coming here. The world is no less a battlefield than it’s ever been; it’s just that the battles are different in nature. Learning to apply strategy and tactics to the subtler side of warfare is exactly what you need to do. The Guild can and will teach you that. And you, child, are much closer than you realize. You’ve got all the capacity you need; keep working, and the rest will come.”

She raised her other hand to squeeze her gently by both shoulders. “Just don’t stress about it, Jasmine. This is not a race, and you’re not under deadline. You are getting there. Be calm, absorb the lessons available to you, and trust that it’ll come together. Because it will. You are too smart for it not to. You just have to let it have the time it needs.”

With a final, gentle squeeze, she released her and lowered her hands.

Jasmine was staring at her with a peculiar expression. After a moment she cleared her throat awkwardly, glancing away, and took a step back.

“I…well, um, thank you. That actually does help.”

Principia nodded. “You can ask me for anything you need. It doesn’t make up for anything in the past, but… I’m here now.”

Jasmine cleared her throat again, then frowned. “Who was it who tried to murder you?”

“I would rather not say.” At the girl’s expression, she held up a hand. “Look, I’m not being coy. And given our respective ranks, you can make me tell you with a word. But for now, I would prefer it if you didn’t, please. An accusation against the likes of her from the likes of me would only harm one of us, and not the one who deserves it. I’d be okay dealing with that on my own, but I’ve got a squad full of women to consider, most of whom have nowhere else to go. It’s being handled—it’s just not going to be as conveniently quick or clean as justice ought.”

“I see.” Jasmine shook her head. “I guess I’d better start getting comfortable with things like that.”

“No,” Principia said firmly. “Never get comfortable with that. Cultivate a loathing of it, and fight it wherever it comes up. But yes, be aware that it exists, and is everywhere, and don’t get caught flat-footed when it rears up.”

Jasmine nodded.

“Was there anything else you wanted to ask?” Principia prompted more softly after a pause.

“For now… Well, somewhat to my surprise, I guess I did just need the encouragement.” She smiled, almost tentatively. “Thank you. And… I may take you up on the offer.”

“I hope you do,” said the elf, smiling back. “Especially since I’m under orders that require me to follow your group of friends around and pry into their business.”

Jasmine’s lips thinned. “Ah. Yes. That.”

“While we’re both here,” said Principia, “what can you tell me about those…things?”

“They’re called disruptors,” Jasmine said. “And…well, this is a bit of a story.”

“My time is yours.”

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11 – 11

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“I’ve never actually seen something like that before,” Principia commented. “Aren’t they fairly rare?”

“Oh, aye, that they are,” Sister Eivery replied with good cheer, arranging the talisman carefully upon the practice dummy. “You’re an enchanter yourself, I understand? Well, divine blessings are nothing like that, basically. It’s all art an’ no science, every piece a personal touch without any easily reproducible methods goin’ into its creation. That’s why ye rarely see divine blessings on things not actively carried by a divine caster. Blessin’ your own kit, that’s a right dish o’ cake, but those blessings fade pretty quick. Layin’ a permanent blessing, the kind comparable to enchantment? Well, it ain’t just any cleric who can do that at all. An’ a good, powerful one like what we’ve got on this charm, that’s rarer still. Not so many o’ these left in circulation.”

“Not so many?” Principia said skeptically. “How many is that?”

“Well, it’s not as if I went an’ took inventory,” Eivery said, giving her a sardonic look and stepping down from the footstool she’d had to employ to arrange everything to her satisfaction upon the dummy. “I can tell ye, though, there’s a bare handful o’ clerics in each cult today who can produce permanent divine charms, and not a one can match relics like this. There’s not been a Hand of Salyrene since the Enchanter Wars, an’ that’s about what it takes to lay a charm of this caliber.”

“You do realize,” the elf said, raising an eyebrow, “that our operating theory is that the device we’re about to test on that apparently very rare charm will break it?”

“Aye,” replied the gnome, giving her a sunny smile. “An’ I also realize the High Commander signed off on this personally, so what’s it to the like o’ you an’ me?”

“I don’t know,” Principia murmured, shaking her head. “It just seems wasteful. We’ve got boxes of these things to play with and little enough notion what they even do; that thing seems quite valuable. Not to mention irreplaceable, apparently.”

“Well, ye never know,” Eivery said cheerfully. “The last few years, paladins ‘ave been croppin’ up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Mayhaps Salyrene’ll call up another soon an’ make all this moot, aye?”

“And maybe we’ll find ourselves with a need for every divine shielding charm in the Sisterhood’s collection and the lack of this one will mean somebody gets blasted by staff fire.”

“Oi, but you’re a dour one,” Sister Eivery said dryly. “Goin’ right for the worst case scenario, is it? Well, in that event, we can take comfort in the fact that based on what we know now, this ‘ere was the perfectly logical thing to do. That doodad an’ all its sisters ‘ave been gatherin’ dust since Jasmine Darnassy’s day. ‘Sides, if our operatin’ theory is these gadgets break divine charms, far better we do what’s necessary to know about ’em before it comes down to a crisis, aye?”

“Oh, you’re not wrong, Sister,” Principia said with a sigh. “I suppose it’s just the old grove talking. Smashing ancient, priceless artifacts to test cheap, newfangled ones… I may not be a traditional elf, but it bugs me. Gods, I’m starting to sound like my mother now. Somebody just shoot me in the head.”

“Well, I don’t have authorization for that,” Eivery said solemnly, “but if you’re serious, I can get a head start on the paperwork.”

The sergeant shook her head. “For the sake of thoroughness and my own paranoia, can you walk me through what all this setup does?”

“Aye, it’s simple enough. All the paraphernalia, ‘ere, is just so I can activate the talisman itself without bein’ immediately in range. That’s both fer safety concerns, considerin’ what ye’ll be firin’ at it here in a bit, an’ to make sure I actually can. In this situation, it might be difficult to do without an intermediary.”

Principia frowned and turned to peer at the gnome, carefully angling her head so as not to be looking down her nose. Eivery had a Stalweiss-pale complexion and hair an almost elvish shade of light blonde, which went quite well with her white Avenist robes. In bearing, though, she was much more a typical gnome than a typical Sister, all good cheer and boundless energy. Even the way she walked was a rapid series of almost-leaps that moved her at a speed comparable to her fellow Sisters, most of whom had legs as long as she was tall.

“Care to offer a little more detail on that?” Principia prompted after a moment, during which Eivery had fallen into study of her work, eyes darting over every detail of the arrangement to check for errors. “Why wouldn’t the talisman activate?”

“Well!” the little Sister said, snapping back to the present. “It’s a theological issue, innit? Now, see, what we’re aimin’ to do is possibly damage that relic, possibly permanently fer all we know, which falls under the general heading o’ sacrilege by some definitions. Aye, you’re not wrong t’be concerned on that point. See, the thing about divine power is, unless yer a dwarf, it comes from a deity. If Avei was to pop down ‘ere an’ ask us what the blazes we were up to, I reckon she’d be on board once we explained. She’s a reasonable sort, is Avei. But the likes o’ you an’ I ‘ardly warrant that kind o’ personal attention from a goddess, which means we’re dealin’ with ‘er in a more diffuse aspect. An’ when not specifically incarnated, gods are kinda… Well, mechanistic. All rules an’ principles, pretty predictable, long as you don’t draw their personal attention. There’s a good chance me tryin’ to activate a relic of Avei with the purpose in mind o’ smashin’ it would…well…”

“Get you smote?” Principia asked, raising her eyebrows.

Eivery barked a laugh and shook her head. “Hah, not by our goddess, Sergeant. If Avei takes the good time and trouble to smite somebody, they were doin’ a lot worse’n petty vandalism. Nah, though, there’s a good chance we’d find out that just plain isn’t allowed, an’ the thing wouldn’t trigger at all. So! All this ‘ere is some very basic fae work, easy enough even a divinist like me can crank it out. Not as basic as it could be, considerin’ I don’t have any fairy connections or talismans o’ power to run it, so I ‘ad to set up all these gizmos just to provide the smidgeon of energy we need. But aye, all the whole thing does is enable me to channel a little divine spark into the relic from way over ‘ere, at a safe distance an’ with enough in between that the poor thing can’t tell I’m plannin’ to blast it with your experimental whatsit, there.”

“Ah,” Principia said, nodding. “Well, you could have spared me some wondering by explaining all that up front. I am an enchanter, you know; I could’ve rigged an array myself to do more or less the same thing.”

“Aye, you could’ve set up an arcane system to channel divine power.” Eivery was generally too cheerful and too kind to be scathing, but the look she gave Principia was rather pointed. “Do ye not know yer Circles, woman? Unless you’re a straight-up mage, none o’ your tricks woulda done more’n get in the way.”

“Allow me my delusions, please,” Principia said sardonically. “They’re all that’s keeping me warm at night, these days.”

Eivery laughed obligingly, and Principia sighed, picking up the liargold-augmented staff set aside from the others, the one Commander Rouvad had already fired in demonstration. It had probably no more than three or four shots left before its liargold superstructure burned out, if that.

The relic they were using was a simple shielding charm, a fist sized golden eagle—cast in apparently real gold—on a heavy chain, now draped over the neck of a practice dummy. According to Sister Eivery, the shield it produced was significantly more powerful than even modern arcane shielding charms, though wouldn’t compare with the personal shield of either a wizard or cleric. Such was generally the case with magical relics like this: they hadn’t the strength or complexity to rival what an actual practitioner could do, but the really well-made old enchantments still held up against their newer counterparts. Modern enchantment was all about new kinds of charms, and ease of reproduction; with the exception of certain specific devices like mag cannons and Rail caravans, few modern contraptions packed the same kind of raw power that the practitioners of old had worked into the objects they left behind.

The nearest of Eivery’s fae charms was a good three yards away from the relic-wearing dummy, well outside the range of the shield once it was activated. They were simple enough, consisting of a small pedestal on which was a large crystal for power—not modern clean-cut quartz, but an older object tied to some fairy source or other—and arranged in a display of sticks, pebbles, and chalk lines, both atop the pedestal, on the floor around it, and even marked on the nearby wall. The whole thing looked far more primitive than an enchantment network of glass and metal wire, but Principia couldn’t have said whether this was due to the inherent nature of fae craft as opposed to divine, or simply Eivery’s unfamiliarity with it. In fact, it looked a lot like things she’d seen shamans create back in the grove, but elves usually defaulted to the oldest, most hidebound means they had of whatever it was they set out to do.

“Well, everything’s shipshape,” Eivery said, nodding up at her. “I’m good to go if you are.”

“Right,” Principia agreed, nodding in return. “Let’s get this over with.”

The priestess grinned at her once, then stepped over to lay her hand against the side of the pedestal.

There was no visible effect among the fairy craft laid out except for just the faintest glow kindled within the large, rough-cut crystal, but an instant later the golden eagle talisman flashed, and a sphere of pure golden light snapped into place around the dummy, producing a pleasing and very soft tone like the sustained chime of a distant bell. It was light enough that even Principia’s ears barely detected it.

“And here we go,” she muttered, raising the staff to her shoulder, and taking aim.

The familiar flash of gold light burst forth as she squeezed the clicker. It impacted the golden shield, and instantly the sphere flickered out of existence.

A split second later, the power crystal cracked straight down its center, and bits of pebbles and twigs were hurled in every direction from atop the pedestal.

“Whoops!” Eivery cried cheerfully, shielding her face. “Got a reaction outta that one, didn’t we?”

“Holy crap, it worked,” Principia muttered. “It shut it off… Quick, check on the relic.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” the priestess replied, already bouncing over to the dummy. She dragged her footstool closer and clambered up, taking the heavy necklace in both hands and peering at it closely with a pensive frown.

“Aye,” she said after a long, silent moment. “Aye, that thing smacked the Light right out of it. Not completely snuffed out, there’s still power in ‘ere…but nowhere near as much as there was. I’d ‘ave to study it closely to see whether the actual structure o’ the blessing itself is damaged. If it’s just been de-powered, odds are it’ll naturally recharge itself over time.”

“But if not…” Principia let out a low whistle. “Please do so, Sister. We need to know everything we possibly can about what we’re dealing with.”

“Way ahead o’ you,” Eivery grunted, standing on tiptoe to pull the chain over the dummy’s squat head. Principia resisted the urge to dash over and help her; after the last time, she had learned that such help was not wanted or appreciated. Not all gnomes were touchy about their height, but those who were… “Scary enough if somebody’s built a battlestaff that snuffs out divine magic. If it can actually unwork a blessing…”

“I’m no divinist,” Principia said, scowling down at the weapon in her hands, “but that seems really unlikely. Being able to counter actual energy… Well, there’s plenty of precedent for that. What would be new here is having a passive enchantment that can do it; Circle transition effects aren’t supposed to be achievable in any significant strength without a conscious caster working on them. It’s not impossible, though, not even theoretically. Actually dismantling a blessing or spell, though? That’d be like designing a spell that could build a golem.”

“Aren’t there arcane spells that can do the like o’ workin’ jigsaw puzzles?” Eivery asked curiously, trundling back over to her with the damaged relic.

“Sure,” Principia said with a shrug, “but that, again, is the work of powerful mages, who, again, have to be there casting the spell.”

“Aye,” Eivery mused, tilting her head to peer at the crates of other nullifier staves. “This ‘ere’s a leap forward in magical understanding, any way ye slice it. Stands to reason, theoretically, if somethin’ can be made to neutralize divine magic, there’s variants possible to do the same to all four schools.”

“Yeah,” Principia agreed. “Theoretically. The difference is, somebody sat down and did this. Somebody with a big budget and a lot of free time. My squad and Bishop Syrinx both are working on the who, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head.

Eivery pursed her lips thoughtfully, then suddenly grinned and hastily hopped over to the nearby velvet-lined box in which the relic had been transported. She carefully lowered it back into its home, then turned to bounce back toward the dummy.

“All right, then! Next test seems obvious t’me, aye?” Turning to face Principia, she was suddenly surrounded by a sphere of glowing gold. “Fire away!”

The elf stared at her, making no move to lift the stave into firing position. “Have you lost your mind?”

“Oh, c’mon,” Eivery said disdainfully. “Nobody went to the time an’ trouble o’ makin’ those things just so’s they could shoot at divine shielding talismans. As we were just discussing, there just aren’t enough of ’em to make it worthwhile. Nah, these’re meant to be used on clerics. That’s the real danger here, an’ therefore that’s what we need to test, aye? Best have as much intel as we can get before goin’ back to Rouvad with this.”

“Rouvad,” Principia snapped, “will mail me to my parents’ grove in three different packages if she learns I fired this thing at a priestess.”

“Pfft! Here’s me, takin’ full responsibility.” Behind her glowing shield, she grinned broadly and spread her arms wide. “I’m askin’ for it, Locke. Me word of honor before Avei’s own ears, that’s what I’ll tell the High Commander. All my idea!”

“I’d really prefer you do the tests on the relic, first.”

“Those’ll take hours, Locke. Aren’t ye curious to know the limits o’ these things?”

“I mean, we don’t know yet whether the effect is permanent! What if this completely destroys your ability to wield divine magic?”

“Categorically impossible,” the gnome said without hesitation. “C’mon, Sergeant, this is basic stuff. My power comes from Avei; it’s a function o’ my connection to her. That connection can be dampened, interfered with; aye, there’s plenty o’ precedent in the history o’ Circle warfare. Any battlemage worth ‘is salt knows how to disrupt a cleric’s power. Like we were just sayin’, all that’s new, ‘ere, is it bein’ a passive enchantment rather than an actively cast spell. But no mage, warlock, or witch can destroy a priest’s relationship with ‘er goddess. That’s nonsense. There is just no way an enchanted weapon can do it!”

Principia shook her head, unconsciously turning the staff over and over in her hands. “I do not like this at all, Eivery. I follow your logic, but really, the risk. Not just to you, but no matter what you say about responsibility, Rouvad hardly needs an excuse to toss me out of here on my beautiful ears.”

“Y’know, Locke, you surprise me,” Eivery commented, folding her arms now. “Fer the pain in the butt everybody says you are, I never expected you to be such an ol’ mother hen.”

The sergeant narrowed her eyes. “…woman, are you trying to provoke me into shooting you?”

Eivery grinned. “Is it working?”

“A little. But seriously, now…”

“Sergeant,” the gnome said more seriously, “these things came from the Thieves’ Guild, aye? As in, the Guild not only had ’em, but they tipped us off to come find ’em, right?”

“That’s what I was told. What of it?”

“Don’t give me that, you’re the clever one. Really, I’m not a nincompoop just because I’m bubbly an’ adorable, an’ I know you aren’t the irritating blockhead you like to pretend to be. We both know there’s a real urgency, here. How often does the bloody Thieves’ Guild do the Sisterhood this kind o’ favor? We don’t ‘ave time fer this, Locke. Look, in the worst case scenario, if it does somehow permanently affect my connection with Avei, that can be rebuilt. The same slow way I built it in the first place, an’ probably a sight quicker with some help from the Salyrites. But even that’s scarcely possible. We need data, an’ we can start by figurin’ out how much interference it creates with a personal divine shield, an’ how long it takes the connection to recover on its own.”

Principia shifted the weapon uncomfortably in her grip. “Based on previous cases of Circle interactions, what would you guess?”

“I’d be amazed if it’s as much as an hour,” Eivery said cheerfully. “Point o’ fact, I’ve been neutralized fer that long in the past. Aye, I wasn’t always safely behind these ‘ere walls, pokin’ and proddin’ at mystery gizmos with the likes o’ you. We’re neither of us any strangers to danger, Locke. Now pull the clicker, while we’re still young.”

Principia sighed and shook her head, but raised the staff back into firing position. “Someday, Eivery, when we know each other a little better, you’ll look back on the fact that I’m being the voice of restraint here and fully appreciate what a bad idea that means this is.”

“Promises, promises.”

“Are you sure you can still examine the relic if this—”

“Would you quit yer bellyachin’ an’ shoot me already?!”

She barely came to the end of the sentence before the flash of light snuffed out her shield.


“It’s only been a day, Lang,” Ephanie said in exasperation, looking up from her own polishing. “You can’t possibly be that bored yet.”

“Anywhere else? No, of course not,” Merry replied, gesticulating with the rag she was using on her armor. “But come on, Corporal, Locke won’t even let us hang around in the courtyard.”

“That is an excellent decision on her part,” Nandi said from her top bunk, not looking up from the book she was reading. “The sight of us hanging around in the courtyard would provoke justifiable resentment from the other squads. And that’s not even touching upon what Captain Dijanerad would think.”

“The Captain’s pretty easygoing,” Casey said.

“With Locke, yes,” Nandi agreed. “Because Shahdi is wise enough to see that Locke’s madness is a thin veneer over a sturdy framework of method. The rest of you are another matter.”

“I just want it entered into the record,” Merry stated, “that just one day is plenty of time to go completely stir crazy in a cabin.”

“I bet if you asked the Sarge real nicely she’d let you run extra drills,” Farah suggested.

“You know what, I think I will. If nothing else, it’ll confuse the hell out of her.”

“Lang,” Ephanie said in exasperation, “we’re soldiers. Waiting around is the lion’s share of what we do. If there’s ever an actual war…honestly, I can’t even imagine how you’ll cope.”

“Probably shoot herself,” Casey said cheerfully.

“While we’re fantasizing,” Farah added, “why stop at war? Let’s say we’re…stranded in the mountains. How much you wanna bet we’d eat Lang within a week?”

“Well, I mean, sure, that goes without saying,” Merry replied, grinning as she continued polishing her boots. “The only one with more meat is Avelea, and she’s actually useful around here.”

“Excuse me?” Ephanie said, setting down her rag and cuirass to scowl at her.

“It’s a compliment, Avelea.”

“And it’s not technically meat,” Nandi murmured. Casey and Merry both dissolved in laughter at Ephanie’s expression.

“I have to say I don’t mind the respite,” Farah said. “I’m pretty interested in this mission. Aren’t you all?”

“That’s half the problem,” Merry replied, still chortling. “I mean, we could be out there.”

“Doing what?” Ephanie asked pointedly. “You and I aren’t even needed for Sarge’s project, apparently, and Shahai’s group just have to wait for the apprentices to contact them. Just stay alert, run your drills and be ready, Private. We’ll have action before we know it.”

“I guess there’s that,” Merry said rather sullenly. “At least here, we’re surrounded by other soldiers and not civvies. I swear, if one more dimwit stops me on patrol to talk about the weather…”

“It’s three weeks past midwinter and people are walking around without coats,” Farah pointed out. “The weather is worth talking about.”

“I heard the Emperor’s secretly assigned the entire Azure Corps to figure out if the weather’s being unnaturally interfered with,” said Casey.

“The one thing you can be assured about the Emperor’s secret activities,” said Nandi, “is that you wouldn’t have heard about them.”

“Which would go right out the window if the whole Azure Corps was in the know,” Farah added.

“Well, still,” Casey said defensively. “It’s not natural. The Emperor’s gotta be doing something.”

“Yep,” Merry said fatalistically, “that’s it. That’s the conversation I was just being thankful I’m not out there having with the locals. You’re doing this just to annoy me, aren’t you, Elwick?”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Casey said cheerfully. “Apparently, I’d have to make sergeant before I’ll have the free time to make my decisions based on what annoys you. Which is good, it gives me plenty of time to observe Locke’s technique.”

Merry chucked a boot at her.

“I don’t know what this is,” Principia said, stepping into the cabin, “but luckily for you knuckleheads I’m far too lazy to enforce proper discipline. Lang, your footwear will be either on your feet or up your ass if you continue to be unable to control it.”

“Are we just all going to pretend she can’t hear us from halfway across the parade ground?” Farah stage whispered.

“Sergeant!” Merry saluted without rising from her bed. “Permission to ask why you’re shiny!”

“I am an elf, Lang,” Principia said haughtily, sashaying down the center aisle between rows of bunks with her nose in the air. She wasn’t shiny, per se, but a faint lightening of the air followed her, almost as if she were being tracked by a spotlight. “I walk in beauty and light all of my days. I am hardly surprised it’s taken you this long to notice, stoopid hoomin.”

“Permission to point out that Corporal Shahai is not shiny!”

“I prefer taste and restraint in my personal grooming,” Nandi said lazily. “Glowing in public is so gauche.”

“That’s a blessing of some significant strength, if I’m not mistaken,” said Ephanie. “Congratulations on finding one priestess you can get along with, Sarge.”

“Congratulations are premature, I’m afraid,” Principia said wryly. “Sister Eivery was flinging blessings around like candy at Wildfeast, just because she could. And she was right—the effect of the neutralizers only lasts about an hour. There’ll be no living with her, I just know it.”

“Neutralizers?” Ephanie set aside her armor, and Nandi sat up and leaned over the edge of the bed, attending more closely to the conversation. “So the tip was right, then? Those weapons counter divine magic?”

“Rather effectively,” Principia said with a frown. “It’s…disturbing, to be frank. Eivery ended up taking the rest of the day to run tests and make sure she’s healthy and sorted out, so we weren’t able to get started on actually reverse-enchanting the things. The rest of our mission has just become that much more important, ladies. We know what those things are, now. It’s that much more important to know where they came from.”

“Oh, Sarge.” Ephanie reached over to the stand beside the arcane heater, picking up a thick envelope resting atop it. “You have mail. A courier brought it by an hour ago.”

“Oh, gods, what now,” Principia groaned. “Mail call is in the morning. Special deliveries are always bad news.”

“I wonder which’ll tell you what’s in it faster,” Merry mused. “Opening it, or whining at it?”

“Corporal Avelea, I want you to poison Lang’s next meal.”

“I’m…not so good with poisons, ma’am. Can I just stab her?”

Silence answered. Principia had opened the envelope and was staring at its contents. Its thickness was deceptive; rather than containing a sheaf of papers, there was only a single note, and a fluffy pink blossom, only slightly squished due to having been carefully housed in a wide envelope.

Casey frowned, edging forward to peer at it. “That’s…is that… That looks like a mimosa blossom.”

“It is,” Nandi said quietly. “Sergeant, if it’s not private…?”

“It’s just a time and a place,” Principia said tonelessly, staring at the two lines on the note. “This afternoon, in the central temple of Ryneas.”

“The god of art?” Merry wrinkled her nose. “That’s basically just a museum, right? Or do they have classes there? Is that even a proper religion?”

“Sounds like the point,” Casey said. “It’s a pretty neutral place to have a meeting. What I wanna know about is that flower. Where the hell would somebody get something like that in midwinter? And what does it mean?”

“Well, you can grow flowers in winter with alchemy or fairy magic,” Farah said slowly. “But a mimosa’s a whole tree.”

“The Arboretum,” said Nandi, in the same quiet tone, her eyes fixed on Principia’s expression. “Plants in the indoor botanical gardens are charmed to blossom year round. It holds several mimosas.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to pick the flowers in there, though,” Casey pointed out.

“Yes,” Nandi agreed. “But someone might be willing to steal one.”

“Why, though?”

“It’s a signature,” Principia said. Very carefully, she tucked the note and the flower back into their envelope. “A rather clever one; sure to get my attention, and meaningless to most people who might intercept this. All right, ladies, be ready. We’re going to have dinner early and head out to answer this summons.”

“We have to go to a museum?” Merry whined.

“Are you sure, Sergeant?” Nandi asked softly.

“I see two possibilities,” Principia replied, her tone cold. “If this is a genuine invitation, I have to answer it. If it is a trap… I’m not going alone. We’ll go to the museum, I will go to the specified gallery, and the rest of you will remain close enough that Shahai’s ears can tell you what’s going on. If it’s authentic… Then I guess you can go home. In fact, it would be best if you did. If it is not, however…” The envelope crinkled under her rigid fingers. “Then I want six Legionnaires on hand to explain to whoever had this bright idea that this is not a string they should pull.”

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11 – 5

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He woke near noon, despite only having managed a few hours of sleep. Quite apart from his body’s determination that daytime was for activity, he was in an unfamiliar place in which he had yet to manage to feel safe, much less at home. Only exhaustion had brought sleep at all, and couldn’t hold it long.

Rasha opened his eyes, feeling the confusion of dreams fade away as he stared at the distant stone ceiling. The barracks, or dormitory (he’d heard it called both), was certainly not cramped. High ceilings aside, he had what felt to him like a very generous allotment of personal space. His modest bunk, a simple wooden-framed affair with a thing mattress and worn but good blankets, had a chest at its foot and a stool beside it, and was framed on all four sides by privacy curtains. Three were lashed into place, with the forth able to slide open to reveal the central aisle of the…barracksatory? Whatever it was called, it was roomier and more private than accommodations on any ship he’d ever bunked down in, even with the unfiltered sounds of his fellow would-be thieves all around him.

Somehow, he’d expected it to be different here. At that moment, lying there staring at the ceiling, he didn’t know why.

It was there, the crushing feeling of hopelessness that dogged him whenever he stopped to let it. Who was he kidding? A new start, a new life, a new career… None of his would make a new him.

Rasha drew in a deep, fortifying breath and forced himself to straighten up. He’d been down this road many, many times; he knew the drill. It would get better when he started moving. For a while, at least.

Maybe it would be better overall, too. Whatever else he could say about the previous night, it had kept him too busy to welter in his own inadequacy.

His clothes were still hanging on the bedposts, undisturbed. Perhaps Style’s warnings were taken to heart by the other apprentices, though he wasn’t about to trust a bunch of thieves-in-training not to pilfer his things. Fortunately, he had no things, aside from the clothes on his back—which, after being washed, had been unwearably soaked, forcing him to wrap himself in his blankets for security despite the fact the barracks (dormitory?) was kept quite warm by arcane heating ranges at both ends. Both Tallie and Jasmine had tried to loan him nightshirts, but he’d fended them off. He wasn’t about to pile wearing girls’ clothes onto his insecurities. Bathing in the men’s washroom had been enough of a nightmare, for all that Ross and Darius had sought their own corners, likewise disinclined to be social while nude. Thank the gods for small blessings.

They were dry, a couple of damp patches aside, and he dressed himself as quickly as possible, then poked his head out.

There were soft sounds of conversation and vague rustles here and there, but he could see no one. Actually, the dormitory was a lot quieter at this hour than it had been at dawn, when people were starting to get up. Rasha peeked up and down the aisle, uncertain what he was supposed to do with himself now.

The rumbling in his stomach decided him.

He passed through the pit as quickly as possible. It was extremely alive, with people everywhere talking, standing around, and practicing various thiefly arts. Rasha kept his head down and made a beeline straight for the dining room, ignoring everyone and certain everyone was staring at him with condescending judgment.

It was all in his head, he knew that. This didn’t make it feel any less real.

The dining hall was busy, too, but fortunately nobody was looking at him when he came in. Everyone was clustered around one end of one of the rows of tables, at the far side of the hall near the kitchens. Rasha paused in the doorway, studying this, before slipping around to the side of the long room farthest from the crowd and going in search of food.

It was an arrangement he knew well from various galleys. A single cook behind the windows presided over various pots and pans of food, which he ladled out onto the tray and plate Rasha collected from stacks of them at one end. The man was distracted to the point of dismissive, watching the cluster of apprentices nearby, which suited Rasha just fine. He also poured himself a cup of tea from the pot at the end of the window, and then found himself holding a laden tray and in need of a place to sit.

His instinct was to get as far from the crowd as possible. Experience had taught him that people would notice that, and some would choose to take it personally. The happy medium would be to slide as surreptitiously as possible onto a bench at the very edge of the gathering.

They were nearly all apprentices, or so Rasha assumed; they were older teenagers and younger adults. The focus of the group was unquestionably on a man who looked to be a fit fifty or so, with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed mustache, who was perched on the very corner of the long table, telling a story.

While Rasha considered this, he caught Jasmine’s eye. She, apparently a person after his own heart, was lurking at the periphery. Seeing that he’d noticed her, she smiled and patted the empty place beside her.

Well. It was at the edge, and after all, she at least was someone he knew. He rather liked Jasmine. She was quiet, and pretty, and impressive. Also, Tallie was right across from her, and while Tallie could be overwhelming, he’d already developed a fondness for her, too. Perhaps jail and forced labor had that effect on a group.

He made himself smile back, and came forward to climb onto the bench beside Jasmine. “Morning. Or afternoon. I’ve lost track.”

“Just past noon,” Jasmine said.

“Oh, hey, Rasha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Both of them were just finishing off their lunches. “Welcome back to the land of the living. I dunno about you, but I’m gonna be a log tonight. A few hours of beauty rest just does not cut it.”

He gave her a smile before glancing down at the other end of the table. “What’s all this?”

“That’s Lore,” Jasmine replied, spearing a forkful of potatoes.

“Um. What’s lore?”

“Him.” Tallie pointed with her spoon. “Lore. That’s his tag; he’s a priest. This being an actual cult, there actually are priests, believe it or not! And he’s pretty much the top-ranking one, except for maybe the Bishop. He’s also the resident expert on Eserite philosophy, and the guy who’ll be teaching it to us. You pay attention to him; you don’t get tagged into the Guild proper until he says you’re fit for it.”

“Hm.” Rasha paused to tuck into his meal. It was just like the night before: bland, but filling. He was already getting nostalgic for the spicy food back home. His sister Amrit made the best curry… “Does anyone else think this is a weird system?”

“Yes,” Jasmine said emphatically, drawing a grin from him against his will.

“Weird how?” Tallie asked.

“Well, it’s…” He shrugged. “There’s no teachers. Apprentices just do whatever, and… Of the people who seem to be dedicated to looking after us, it’s just these two, right? Lore and Style?” He raised his eyebrows. “The chief enforcer and the chief priest?”

“Who told you Style was chief enforcer?” Tallie asked, frowning. “Last night you didn’t even know who she was.”

“Darius loves to talk.”

“Oh. Yeah, he does.” She grinned, spooning up the last of her carrots. “Almost as much as me.”

“Rasha has a point, though,” Jasmine mused. “These are basically top people in the guild. Apprentices are kind of…at the bottom. Seems odd that they’re the only ones who have a dedicated responsibility for us.”

“All systems are corrupt!” Tallie said cheerfully around a mouthful, prompting both of them to avert their eyes. “Makes perfect sense to me the Eserites’d have a pretty unique system. Eh?”

Rasha coughed, forking up another bite of potatoes. “So, um, anyway. After lunch. What do we…do?”

“Whatever we like,” Jasmine said quietly. “No one tries to organize your activities. But we’re expected to be consistently working toward improving our skills, trying to either get a sponsor or go straight for full Guild membership. Style pulls people aside for a talk if she thinks they aren’t working hard enough.”

“Like I say, good system,” Tallie opined. “The Guild doesn’t need people who stand around waiting to be told what to do. You gotta be a self-starter, have your own motivation!”

“I’m kind of amazed how Style knows what everyone’s up to,” Jasmine murmured. “I only actually see her once in a while, mostly just passing through if she’s not grabbing somebody for one of her little talks. But she does seem to have her thumb on everyone’s pulse.”

“Okay, then.” Rasha drew in a deep breath, let it out, and had a sip of tea. “Training. How’s that work?”

“Well, you wanna learn something, you get somebody to teach you,” Tallie said, again gesticulating with her silverware. “Anybody, really. You can learn from the other apprentices—most sponsored ones don’t live here in the Guild, but they come for training themselves, and the ones with seniority are the closest thing to dedicated teachers. Just cos they don’t have enough status to be turning up their noses at a fellow apprentice who asks for help.”

“Just because their sponsors would land on them if they did that,” Jasmine added. “Isn’t that more or less what happened to Pick?”

“He was doing a little worse than that, but yeah, basically,” Tallie agreed. “Point is, Rasha, you’ve gotta be mindful of reputation and credibility. How much you have, and how much others have. Makes a difference who you can approach and how seriously they have to take you, or who’s likely to approach you, either to give or to ask for help.”

“Ugh.” He rubbed his forehead. “So if you’re not the most social person, this is basically a nightmare.”

“Basically,” Jasmine said dourly.

“Oh, don’t listen to her,” Tallie snorted, pointing accusingly at Jasmine. “This one’s definitely not a people person, but she does okay. A good start is to head out into the pit and demonstrate what you’ve got! Try stuff out, do what other people are doing. It draws attention; people will admire what you do right, and correct you where you’re wrong.”

“That’s true,” Jasmine acknowledged. “I’m not much of a social person, but so far I seem to get by on work ethic. Haven’t really had any proper training except from a couple of the senior sponsored apprentices.”

“Flora and Fauna,” Tallie added, nodding. “The Bishop’s. You’ll like them, Rash.”

“It’s Rasha,” he emphasized.

“Uh, yeah.” She winced. “In hindsight, I can see why it would be.”

“So,” he murmured, toying with a forkful of potato. “Just go out there and…do things. All right.”

“Finish your meal first,” Jasmine advised.

“Oh, believe me,” he assured her, “that wasn’t in question.”


What he could do…

Looking around the pit, where apprentices were working at dummies, sparring, climbing walls, and doing several things whose purpose he couldn’t guess, Rasha felt another moment of profound helplessness. What could he do that would impress anyone here?

Then his eyes fell on the balance bars. They were clearly designed for climbing, being built up in an asymmetrical, complex formation that rose over three yards high, made of smooth-sanded wood darkened by countless hands and joined together with metal fastenings.

He was making his way toward them before he could talk himself out of it again. Somewhat to his surprise, Tallie and Jasmine followed along. It was mildly encouraging that they didn’t have much more idea what to do than he; with them being his primary source of information, he tended to forget they had only been around a few days, themselves.

“Thieves need to climb,” he said, a smile breaking unbidden across his features.

“Well, yes,” Jasmine said behind him. “I suppose that’s—whoah!”

It wasn’t like rigging. The texture, the arrangement, the inflexibility of the bars… But it was grasping, swinging, pulling, knowing the weight of his body, feeling the inertia and gravity as he swam through them. Rasha hopped upward once to grab the lowest bar, and in seconds had bounded nimbly up through the whole arrangement to perch smugly atop it.

He had to grin in sudden pride when his performance was rewarded by cheers and wolf whistles from others about the room. They quickly returned to their own business—these folks had surely seen a lot of more impressive things—but for a few moments, he was the center of attention…and approbation. It was an unfamiliar feeling.

Rasha decided on the spot he needed more of it.

“Hey, not bad!” Tallie called, grinning up at him. “Not bad at all. Lemme have a go!”

Twenty seconds later, she was beside him. Her technique for climbing was very different than his; she swung her body in wide arcs, with graceful flourishes of whatever limb was not currently needed to hold herself in place. It was an inefficient method, but an undeniably beautiful one, and Rasha found himself curious where she’d learned to climb.

He was also uncomfortably aware of how her performance accentuated the long lines of her body.

“Impressive!” he said, hoping his skin was dark enough to hide his blush. His sisters were never fooled, but people of Stalweiss stock, he’d found, often couldn’t spot faint changes in coloration, not when their own faces turned bright pink at the slightest thing. “That’s…wow, I’ve never seen anyone climb like that.”

“Why, thank you,” she said, batting her eyes and simpering.

Rasha cleared his throat. “Um, well. I suppose there’s no mystery about me; just a wharf rat, used to scaling the rigging. I was dancing on ropes before I could walk.”

“Circus rat, here!” she said cheerfully, hopping upward and throwing herself into a somersault. She landed with one hand grasping the bar on which they both sat, and slowly straightened her body out above them, free arm and legs all pointing in different directions, balancing on her palm. “The point is not to get anywhere in a hurry, but to look good while you’re getting!”

“Mission accomplished,” he mumbled.

Tallie turned her head to grin and wink at him upside-down, and he had to drop his own gaze.

“There she is!”

He craned his neck to look below, where a slim blonde woman dressed in black was striding across the pit floor toward Jasmine, grinning.

“Oh!” Tallie swiftly re-folded herself to sit beside him on the top bar. “That’s Grip!”

“Grip… Oh, Randy’s master?”

“Ex-sponsor, yeah. She is not somebody you wanna cross.” She nudged him with an elbow, grinning eagerly at the scene below, where the senior thief had cornered and engaged Jasmine in conversation. “You’ll wanna watch this. Grip was around two days ago, Jas’s first appearance here. She got baited into sparring with one of the other apprentices.” Her grin grew hugely. “Flattened him. Just completely demolished, and didn’t even get bruised. I swear her hair wasn’t mussed. Yeah, Grip’s an enforcer; she saw that, and I had a feeling she’d be back to see some more.”

“I see,” he mused.

Tallie gave him an irritated glance. “What, that’s it? You’re supposed to express disbelief. How can a little slip of a thing like Jasmine be so dangerous?”

“It actually is really surprising,” he agreed, “but this isn’t when I’m learning of it. You remember last night, when we were all literally blind and it still took three Silver Legionnaires to pin her down?”

“Oh,” she said sullenly. “Yeah, I guess so. Fair enough.”

The conversation below had progressed while they were talking, culminating in Grip turning to the other nearby apprentices and asking for volunteers, while Jasmine stood aside, looking uncomfortable.

“Oh, all right,” Darius said, pushing forward through the crowd and trying for a show of reluctance, which was ruined by his broad grin. “I guess I can have a go. But just promise you won’t cry, Jas. I hate to see a pretty lady all mussed.”

Instantly, Jasmine’s posture shifted, reluctance and uncertainty vanishing as she turned to face him.

“All right,” she said quietly. “I promise.”

“He’s not very bright, is he?” Rasha whispered.

“No,” Tallie replied, grinning insanely. “No, he is not.”


“Ah, there they are,” Principia said as Casey and Farah entered the cabin. “Finally. Front and center, ladies, we’re waiting on you.” Indeed, the rest of the squad were clustered around the arcane heater at the end in which they slept, all but Principia herself sitting on their bunks. “We’ve got new marching orders straight from the High Commander. This is the big one, girls: an actual mission, something important to the Sisterhood’s interests, and a chance for us to prove our worth. We will not mess this up. I hope you enjoyed your last hour of normal duty shifts in a while, because once I’ve briefed you, we are off to the races.”

“Um, before that,” Farah said nervously. “We have something to report.”

Beside her, Casey sighed, looking resigned.

“Well?” Principia said impatiently. “Out with it, then.”

“It’s, um…” Farah shuffled her booted feet. “Well, Sarge, you remember the mystery of the jackass cadet who kept signing out prayer rooms under the name I. P. Standing?”

“Oh, no,” Nandi whispered.

Principia glanced at her, then fixed her stare back on Farah. “Vaguely, sure. What of it?”

“Well,” Farah said, “the good news is, today we caught her red-handed.” Casey edged subtly away from her.

“And the bad news?” Principia demanded.

Farah cringed, hunching her shoulders as if trying to withdraw her head into her breastplate like a turtle. “Colonel Standing would like a word with you, ma’am. At your earliest convenience.”

There was a moment of silence, in which Ephanie’s eyes widened in horror and Nandi closed hers. Then Merry burst out laughing so hard she almost immediately rolled off her bunk.

“You remember telling Farah to be more assertive?” Casey added helpfully. “Well, she’s been working on it.” Farah shot her a filthy look.

“Well, isn’t that the fuckin’ cherry on top,” Principia said sourly. “Thank you so much, Szaravid.”

“Sorry, Sarge,” Farah said miserably.

“Elwick,” the sergeant added, “walk over to Lang, and if she’s still on the floor by the time you get there, stomp on her organs. Everybody else, just…sit down and sort yourselves out. This is important.”

Merry was still grinning half a minute later when they had all assembled and arranged themselves under their sergeant’s now-irritated stare, but even she managed to mostly compose herself. Nandi sat cross-legged on her own top bunk; the others spread out on the bottom ones, waiting expectantly.

“Much as we need more warm bodies around here,” Principia mused, “I do rather like the coziness. After all the shouting and drilling, it’s nice to be a group of people and not the armored golems the bronze demands of us. Needless to say, as always, you are none of you to carry tales of how I do things up the chain of command.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused, most smiling.

“All right, to business.” Principia nodded once. “What we caught last night was the tail end of a bigger and more important operation. Rounding up a handful of Eserite apprentices, in addition to being a completely useless thing to do, was not the point. That raid was prompted by a tip from relatively high in the Guild itself, and its point was to seize the weapons being traded in that warehouse. I didn’t bring any to show you, because they’re to stay locked in the main temple at Commander Rouvad’s orders, but what we found are modified battlestaves of strange design and uncertain purpose. They are capped at both ends with large crystals and incorporate some kind of gold superstructure. When fired, they produce a slightly diffuse beam of yellow light which exerts a mild kinetic force on a target and no other visible effect. It is useless against energy shields. In short, the Legion has apprehended strange weapons that someone in the Thieves Guild felt it was important that we know about. We can’t tell what they are, or what they’re supposed to do, or where they come from.”

She let that sink in for a moment, panning her stare around the squad. “And it is now our job to answer those questions.”

“How?” Merry asked.

“In several ways,” Principia said, beginning to pace up and down. She only had room to make about three steps at a time before having to turn. “First, I’m to examine the devices themselves to figure out their purpose; the High Commander has suspended my weapons research until this is done. Second, this squad is to track the origins of the weapons, and try to learn about their provenance.”

“Once again,” said Merry, “how?”

“I’ve been mulling that,” Principia said seriously. “And I’ll come to it in a moment. First, though, there’s another thing you need to know. What I said about this being an important test of the squad’s mandate is true, but the stakes are higher than that. Commander Rouvad has tasked Bishop Syrinx with the same objectives; she is to pursue the matter through political channels. The Church, the Eserite Bishop, and whatever else she can manage.”

“Holy shit,” Casey breathed. “It’s…a race, then.”

“It’s more complicated than that, Elwick,” Principia said grimly. “In addition to doing our actual jobs, we’ll need to carefully manage our situation relative to Syrinx. Yes, this is a chance to pull ahead and prove ourselves more useful than she, which is a step toward the important goal of validating the Commander’s trust in this squad and making Syrinx herself redundant. However, she is not unaware of our stake in this, and if we start to show her up too badly… Well, you all know how restrained dear Basra is when she feels threatened.”

“She just got back from being punished for that,” Ephanie objected. “Surely she won’t lash out again.”

“She is likely to be more careful right now than she otherwise might, for exactly that reason,” Principia agreed, “but never forget that Basra’s calculations are just that. She had no personal restraint or regard for anyone but herself; only self-interest keeps her in check. This is going to be tricky, ladies.”

“Okay,” Casey said, frowning but slowly nodding. “What’s your plan, then, Sarge?”

“To begin with, leave Syrinx to me,” Principia said firmly. “If she approaches any of you in any way, report to me immediately and in detail. Aside from that, just keep clear of her.”

“Always a good policy,” Merry noted.

The sergeant nodded to her. “With that said, there’s the matter of how to actually begin tracking these weapons. The leads are few and the trail cold, ladies; this isn’t going to be an easy job. Maybe not a possible one. But we’re going to do what we can, using the very thing this squad was formed to foster: our connections with other cults.”

They glanced around at each other in confusion.

“Well,” Farah said doubtfully, “I guess one of Nemitoth’s libraries might be able to help identify the enchantments used on those weapons…”

“Yes, true, but that’s not what I meant,” said Principia. “I’m referring to the connections we have formed as a squad.”

“That pretty much is just Bishop Darling, isn’t it?” said Merry.

Principia grinned. “Think more recently. Very recently.”

“Oh, no,” Merry groaned.

“Oh, yes, Lang. We’re going to split into two teams for phase one of this. The first group will consist of Shahai, Elwick, and Szaravid. You will locate those Guild apprentices we met last night, cultivate friendships, and get them to tell you whatever it is they know. Do not treat them as a disposable information source, either. Useless as apprentices are, they won’t be apprentices forever. Not everyone who applies to the Guild makes it all the way—not even most. But we won’t waste a potential connection.”

“Why us, though?” Casey objected. “I mean, all due respect, Sarge, but wouldn’t you be a better choice to deal with the Guild?”

“I do have the knowledge and experience, this is true,” Principia agreed. “And for exactly that reason, I’ll be coaching you on what to say, what to do, and how to proceed. Carefully. But by the same token, I have my own reputation among the Guild, and my presence would be…complicating. Trust me when I say it’s best I remain at a circumspect distance from them for now. But I chose you three by process of elimination. Avelea radiates discipline and dignity even when out of uniform; among Eserites, that’s tantamount to tattooing ‘kick me’ on you forehead. And Lang…” She turned a critical look on Merry, who grinned puckishly. “Honestly, Lang, I could see you either making the best of friends with Eserites, or the worst of enemies, depending on how the conversation went. I’m reluctant to flip that coin when either heads or tails could end with you getting shanked.”

“Your concern for my welfare touches me, Sarge.”

“Yes, yes. Passive-aggressive jab at my leadership, obligatory rejoinder about my boots touching you, and we move on. We three, Lang, Avelea, and I, are going to pursue the other lead we’ve gained lately.” She grinned. “It’s a weak one, but he was on the scene—and given what we’re looking into, building a tie to the Salyrites will be all kind of useful. So while you guys are dancing with thieves, we’re going to look up our new friend Mr. Schwartz.”

“Question.” Farah raised a hand. “Don’t all of these people…um, sort of hate us right now?”

“I thought Schwartz seemed pretty mild-mannered,” Ephanie commented.

“Yes,” Farah said dryly, “but you don’t have to deal with the Eserites.”

“Well, I think you overestimate the level of hostility we’ll meet, Szaravid,” said Principia. “Hate is a very strong word. But yes, there may be some ill feeling. In that case, you will simply have to employ charm and persuasion.”

“And,” Farah said hesitantly, “what if I don’t…have charm and persuasion?”

“Then,” Principia said, “I guess you’re back to being assertive, aren’t you?”

Merry let out a long sigh and leaned back against the frame of her bunk. “Oh, yeah. This is gonna work.”

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11 – 3

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“Yeah!” Tallie jeered, rattling the cell door again. “Not so tough when somebody actually stands up to you, huh? Somebody oughta—”

While she spoke, Locke rapped her lance sharply with one boot to make it bounce on the stone floor, then deftly slipped a toe under it and kicked it upward into her hand, whereupon she set the tip against the cell door and raked it across the bars, making them ring obnoxiously. And vibrate, to judge by the way Tallie yelped and jerked backward, shaking her fingers.

“Here’s the situation in which you kids find yourselves,” the Sergeant said in a grimmer tone, raking her stare across them. “You flubbed a job and got nabbed. The Sisterhood has no interest in prosecuting illegal arms dealers—in fact, it’s a mystery to me why the Third Legion bothered to raid that meet in the first place. That means your next stop, according to standard operating procedures, is the military police, who are interested in illegal arms dealers.” She let that loom over them for a moment before continuing. “Now, you know and I know that you bumpkins don’t have anything worthwhile to tell them and you’re guilty of, at most, being accessories to whatever crimes were actually committed. It’s honestly a toss-up whether they’d bother to press charges, but they will work you over in the process of verifying that you’re just hapless know-nothing apprentice goobers.”

“That’s a little strong,” Rasha complained.

“But,” Locke said loudly. “I also know a lot about the type of people who seek to join the Thieves’ Guild, and what’s involved in the process. Unless your family’s Guild, you almost certainly are struggling with demons of your own—and I know none of you chuckleheads are legacies, or you’d be sponsored and not getting ditched in a warehouse by the only clown who’d take you on a job. Some of you, if not most of you, if not all of you, are going by assumed names.” She glanced rapidly from Jasmine to Ross to Tallie. “It’s a safe bet you all have good reason not to want the Empire digging into your business—and you’d better believe they would dig, for something like this. Dangerous or no, weapons traffic is a matter of connections. If you’re the only links they’ve got in that chain, they will find out whatever else you’re linked to. And then, once you got out of that, you would have to explain all this to Style. You know what a kind, understanding cream puff she is. I can’t say how much rep any of you kids have, but if you happen to be already in the doghouse, or just without enough established cred, being the reason Imperial Intelligence pays the Guild a visit would be enough by itself to get your butts bounced out into the street.”

The Sergeant fell silent, raised one eyebrow, and studied each of them in turn.

“What’s the alternative?” Darius asked in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

“Be with you in a moment,” she said, suddenly sounding cheerful again. “You just ruminate on that whilst I deal with some other business. So!” Locke paced slowly down the bars, coming to a stop near the end and turning to face Schwartz, who stood near the wall of the cell with his arms folded, scowling. “What’s your story?”

“I am Herschel Schwartz,” he announced, “fellow in good standing of the Emerald Collegium of the College of Salyrene. I have not broken any laws, my only interactions with the Silver Legions prior to tonight were rendering them aid, and I am exceedingly irate!”

“You tell ‘er!” Tallie crowed.

“SHUT UP!” everyone else shouted at her. She gaped around at them, blinking in awe.

“Herschel Schwartz.” Locke studied him closely, wearing a faint frown. “By that description, you sound like a rather upstanding fellow.”

“Thank you, I try.” Meesie, squeaking pompously, bounced from his shoulder to his head where she stood upright and folded her tiny arms.

“Would you care to explain,” Sergeant Locke asked mildly, “just what you were doing attending an illegal arms swap meet, Mr. Schwartz?”

He jutted his chin out mulishly, now refusing to meet her gaze. “…you’d laugh at me.”

“Schwartz,” Locke said pointedly, “you are in a cell. You are implicated in crimes of the sort that makes Imperial Intelligence open dossiers on people, and keep abreast of their movements for years thereafter. If you get out of this with nothing worse than being laughed at, you’ll be making out very well indeed.”

“Yes, I see your point,” he said sourly. “All right, fine. I was looking to meet and make connections with Eserites.”

“Well, it’s a right pleasure to meetcha!” Tallie said cheerfully. Meesie chittered amicably back at her.

Darius cleared his throat. “Is it too late to deny knowing her? In fact, I’m increasingly willing to testify that this whole thing was Tallie’s idea.”

“I don’t think that’d work,” Jasmine said, deadpan. “She’s met Tallie.”

“Oh, whose side are you on?” Tallie snapped.

“Children,” Locke said firmly. “Hush. And as for you, Schwartz. Any reason in particular you were wanting to connect with the Thieves’ Guild?”

He shrugged, again not meeting her stare. “Well, it’s not as if I’m the sort of person who ordinarily has such connections, is it? Honestly, I have no interest in weapons, illegal or otherwise—except, well, some of those modified wands were rather intriguing, even if arcane work isn’t my field of specialization… Ah, yes, but anyway. That meetup was the only thing I was able to find out about that I could attend, and I was sort of warned against just walking into the Imperial Casino and trying to chat people up. I was willing to buy a staff or something if that’s what it took to make friends, but fortunately for my pocketbook, the Legion interceded.”

“That’s all very interesting,” Locke said, “but it’s not really what I asked you, is it?”

“No, I suppose it’s not.” Finally he raised his eyes to hers, now staring challengingly. “But I do know that socializing with Eserites is not a crime, and in fact cannot be considered evidence of a crime according to established legal precedent. So unless you intend to see me charged with weapons trafficking, which you know won’t stick, I would like to leave now, please.”

“Hm,” Locke mused, and then shrugged. “Welp! You’re not wrong. And as I have been given discretion with regard to what’s done with you kittens, it seems I have the authority to release you.”

“Can you stop with the diminutive nicknames?” Rasha snapped.

“You’re free to go,” Locke continued to Schwartz, ignoring the Punaji boy. “I’ll ask your patience a few moments longer, with apologies; you’re all leaving that cell in just a few moments, toward one destination or another, and I’d just as soon not deal with the rigamarole of extracting one person while corralling the rest. After you’re out of there, though, I’d appreciate it if you’d stick around for a few minutes, Mr. Schwartz. I’d like to have a word with you in private.”

He sighed dramatically. “I’ve told you everything I know about all this, which is practically nothing. I don’t see what else you can possibly want from me!”

“Oh, no,” she said with amusement, “I don’t suspect you of anything but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I meant a personal conversation.”

“Then I understand even less,” he replied, frowning. “I’m pretty sure we’ve not met before—I’d remember a dark-haired elf.”

“We haven’t, no,” Locke said, now grinning openly. “But I’d like to chat a bit about another Mr. Schwartz I know, of whom you are the spitting image, minus about twenty years.”

He blinked. “You knew my father?”

Locke’s grin melted away. “…knew?”

“Oh.” Schwartz sighed. “Yes. He passed on six years ago. A carriage accident. Of all the ridiculous ways to go, after all he did in his life…”

“Hey, can you two maybe talk this out after—”

Darius broke off with a muffled curse as Ross swatted him upside the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward into the bars.

“Have some respect,” Ross grumbled disapprovingly.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you,” Schwartz said awkwardly.

“No. No, I’m sorry.” Locke shook her head. “If I took better care of my relationships I wouldn’t be finding out about lost friends years after the fact… And this isn’t the first time, either. But yes, anyway, I do need to deal with the rest of these first, but…”

“Sure,” Schwartz agreed, looking generally more amenable now. “And yes, I’ll hang around a bit after you’re done.”

“Smashing. So!” Locke turned to the others, raising her eyebrows. “Thoughts?”

“You’re not accustomed to holding prisoners,” Jasmine said critically. “Keeping us in suspense is cheap drama, and the threat isn’t ominous enough to even make it effective. Do you just enjoy wasting everyone’s time?”

“Okay, not with her, either,” Darius announced. “In fact, I disavow any knowledge of all of these fuckers.”

“My, kitten’s got some claws on her,” Locke said dryly to Jasmine. “I bet all the other girls back in finishing school lived in absolute dread of you.”

Jasmine narrowed her eyes to slits.

Rasha cleared his throat. “So, anyway, you were menacing us with threats of Intelligence and whoever Style is. Was there a better alternative?”

Locke boggled at him. “Whoever Style is?!”

Tallie cleared her throat. “He’s new. As in, first night. Hasn’t even got a bunk yet.”

“I’m having an interesting day,” Rasha grumbled.

“You poor bastard,” Locke said, shaking her head. “All right, here’s the deal. There are times when being caught between my various responsibilities is a hardship—but then there are times, like this one, where they all line up perfectly.” She began to pace slowly up and down in front of the bars. “I have a responsibility to the law, which is the least of my concerns here, because we all know you lot aren’t a threat to anyone except possibly yourselves. You might, it is true, become a threat one day if you stick with the Guild, but nobody rational prosecutes potential. I have a responsibility to the Silver Legions to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught criminals. I could maybe just let you all go as an interfaith gesture of goodwill and justify that to my captain as part of my squad’s mandate—”

“Yes!” Tallie said, gripping the bars again and nodding eagerly. “Embrace the mandate!”

“But,” Locke continued, ignoring her, “there is also my responsibility as a member of the Thieves’ Guild to do something with a gaggle of fairly-caught screwups. So! I believe I know of a happy medium. One which meets all those objectives and gives you a valuable life lesson besides!”

“I hate valuable life lessons,” Tallie grumbled.

Locke stepped to one side and turned to regard those behind her with a sunny smile. The rest of her squad had been standing silently this whole time at parade rest; the Avenist cleric who’d accompanied them in watched the proceedings with interest from the sidelines, as did the sole Legionnaire who’d been left to guard the room.

“I asked your gracious host, Sister Tianne, if there was any significant work that needed doing around this facility—”

“Oh, come on!” Darius groaned.

“—and wouldn’t you know it! This temple has an attached stable, which is slated for renovation to house enchanted carriages rather than horses, the times being what they are. The budget being what it is, no actual workers have yet been contracted to do this, and as this particular temple is mostly a dedicated training facility and waypoint for the Legions on city duty, there aren’t enough permanent staff here to undertake a renovation themselves. So guess what!”

“I hate you,” Darius informed her.

Jasmine shrugged. “It sounds like honest work to me. And a fair enough consequence for tonight’s mess. Considering how this could have gone, I don’t see what your complaint is.”

“Jasmine,” he said in exasperation, “I did not join up with the bloody Thieves’ Guild because I wanted to do honest work!”

“You think thieves don’t work?” Ross asked.

“Everybody works,” Rasha added. “Don’t work, don’t eat.”

“Some of you,” Locke said with visible approval, “have a future in your chosen organization.”

“But it’s the middle of the night!” Tallie protested, again rattling the cell door.

“Oh, you’ve got some pressing appointment? A hot date?” Sergeant Locke arched an eyebrow. “Very well, it’s up to you. Since, if you’d rather not help the good Sister thoroughly clean out the stables, your next meeting will be with the military police. After all, nobody wants to keep them waiting.”

Tallie groaned and slumped forward, clonking her forehead against the bars.

“So,” Locke continued, “once you’re out of there, you’re out. You’ll answer to Sister Tianne until she is satisfied with your results—and Sister, be so kind as to be satisfied only when that place is spotless.”

“It goes without saying,” Tianne agreed.

“And in case any of you are thinking of bolting prematurely, let me just inform you that she will be sending me a full report of your performance, and if I find any complaints in it, they’ll go right to Style.”

“You don’t even know our names,” Darius huffed.

The Sergeant pointed to each of them in turn. “Gangly but hot wiseass, tiny Punaji, handsome yet poorly-dressed meathead, walking wall, deceptively dainty bruiser. Anybody wanna lay odds Style can’t figure out who you are?” She let them consider that for a moment before going on. “Come to a decision quickly, please, kids. I know you’re all eager to put this whole episode behind you, and poor Mr. Schwartz has been cooped up in there quite long enough.”

“Well, I can’t say this hasn’t been rather interesting,” Schwartz commented.

Tallie sighed and turned to face the others. “Well, whaddaya think, guys? Should we make a show of pretending to consider it to save face, or just go ahead and ask where the brooms are?”

“Oh, we’ll get to the brooms before the end of the night,” Sister Tianne said with a benign smile. “You’ll need to start with shovels.”

“I think,” said Rasha, “I’ve made some poor decisions recently.”


Casey was practically vibrating with eagerness as the downcast Eserite apprentices filed through the small temple’s courtyard en route to its attached stables.

“Are we going to stay and supervise this, Sarge?” Ephanie asked.

“No.” Principia shook her head. “They’re on the honor system now.”

“They’re Eserites,” Merry pointed out disdainfully.

“One,” said Principia, “they barely are. Two, they know the consequences of screwing this up; the point of the honor system in this case is to teach them some honor. And three, Lang, shut your hate hole, you dismal termagant, you. Avelea, keep everybody in line, please; the rest of you, stand in the courtyard here looking official until I’m back. You have my apologies for leaving you on the hook while I see to personal business, ladies. I’ll buy you all cocoa tomorrow.”

“That makes it all worth it!” Farah said with a broad smile.

“Sarge!” Casey finally burst out, the last of the apprentices having vanished into the stable. “That girl, the one with the dark hair—”

Principa’s finger was suddenly in her face. “No, Elwick.”

“But Farah and I met her, I’m sure it’s—”

“No, Elwick!” Principia repeated more loudly. “Drop it.”

“But I could see you recognized—”

“Elwick,” the sergeant snapped, “as soon as we’re back at base you will give me five laps of the parade ground at full run before removing your gear.” She took a step closer to the suddenly silent private, glaring. “And nothing that uninteresting, completely random Guild apprentice chooses to do is any of your business until and unless she tells you otherwise. I will not have to repeat any of this to you. Ever. Am I understood?”

Casey swallowed heavily. “Yes, ma’am.”

Principia held her gaze for a moment before withdrawing. “Good. Now I’m going to go have a quick word with Mr. Schwartz, and then we can be on our way back home.”

She nodded once to them, then turned and strode off into the temple proper, through the door Schwartz had earlier been shown by a resident priestess.

“Asking what the deal is with that apprentice is just gonna get me added to the shit list, isn’t it,” Merry said wryly.

Nandi Shahai glanced at her from behind her helmet, then at the door to the stables, and then after Principia, remaining silent.


Jasmine took the opportunity to glance at the sky as she pushed a wheelbarrow filled with the sludge and unspeakable smells of countless horses out to the courtyard, where she had been instructed to pile the refuse to be collected later and transported out of the city, there being ordinances about what could and could not be just tossed away in Tiraas. The island city had to regulate some things with exceeding care, lest people find themselves wading ankle-deep in pollution. It was hard to tell through the city’s omnipresent glow, but the sky didn’t appear to be lightening. What with one thing and another, she had completely lost track of time, but it was surely past midnight by now.

Straightening up after tipping the barrow over, she paused to scrub a sleeve over her sweaty forehead and glanced around the courtyard. Squad 391 were still present, lounging around at ease; clearly they didn’t find the apprentices to be much of a hazard or a responsibility. Not that she could blame them. In fact, one was leaning against the wall quite close by, which drew a second glance from her. The woman had her helmet off, revealing she was an elf. A blonde elf with horizontal ears, not another dark-haired wood elf, but still. There weren’t so many elves in the Legions altogether. It was quite odd to find two in such a small unit.

“Don’t take it as a rejection,” the elven Legionnaire said suddenly as Jasmine turned to push her wheelbarrow back inside for another load. “Locke’s enlistment was under the specific condition that she not go near you except at your invitation. She’s not overly fond of rules in general, but she can toe the line when necessary.”

Jasmine had paused, hands on her burden, to peer at the woman sidelong without turning to face her. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course. My mistake.”

She pushed the barrow another foot and a half before letting it come to a stop. “Your sergeant claims to be a member of the Guild.”

“It’s not a claim,” the soldier—a corporal, by her insignia—said with a smile. “The Legion knows her history and credentials quite well.”

“Are you sure she’s trustworthy?”

She cocked her head to the side in thought. “Complicated question, isn’t it? The chain of command seems to mostly find her a nuisance…but her own soldiers are quite loyal to her. I would say fiercely so, in some cases. That’s a particular type of officer who bears watching. In war and other dangerous times they have a way of saving us all; in more peaceful times, they cause the most horrendous trouble.”

Jasmine frowned slightly, then opened her mouth to speak again.

“Oi!” Tallie bellowed from within the stable. “Having a nice break out there?”

With a sigh, she picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles and pushed back into the stable.


Schwartz’s rented room wasn’t quite dark anymore by the time he got back to it. Not fully light, either—it was still before dawn—but even without flipping on the fairy lamp, he could see clearly by the pale glow of the windows. Well, good; one less thing to do. He was so tired…

He stepped in, shut and locked the door behind himself, and turned to make his way for the bed. He could afford an actual apartment but considered it wasteful; this small loft had all the space he needed for his books and magical supplies, and keeping a bed tucked into a far corner suited him just fine. Only halfway there did he realize someone was present, lounging in his armchair.

“Oh!” he said, stopping and blinking in surprise. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you…”

“Good morning, Herschel,” Ami said sweetly. “How was your evening?”

“Ah, well, you know. Long. I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but it’s so late it’s early and I’m really—”

“WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?!”

Despite her usually dulcet tones, Ami Talaari’s voice had been trained for power as well as precision; she could project at a porcelain-cracking volume in an enclosed space. He actually staggered backward, Meesie squealing and puffing up in alarm.

“Do you have any idea how worried I’ve been?” the bard raged, surging to her feet and stalking toward him. “The last thing I heard, you’d gone haring off to some godawful hole full of all manner of thugs, to make friends, of all the ludicrous things! And then you don’t come home all night? I thought you were dead! I pictured you being tortured! I feared you were in jail!”

“I was!” he protested.

Ami halted her advance, and blinked once, slowly. “Run that by me again?”

“Well, I’m not sure if it was jail in a legal sense,” he said. “The Silver Legion raided the warehouse and rounded up everybody who couldn’t escape—which was just me and some poor Eserite apprentices who hardly seemed to know what was happening. And they let me out, obviously, once things were sorted out, but… Yes, that did take up the bulk of the night, I’m afraid. Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be waiting up. Um…you don’t usually visit at…this hour. How long have you been sitting here?”

She waved that away. “Well, I suppose I can’t entirely blame that on you, then. Did you at least gain any contacts within the Guild?”

Schwartz stepped slowly forward and pulled over one of the chairs at the table, sinking down into it. “Well… Actually, it’s kind of a funny story.”

Ami arched an eyebrow superciliously, crossing her arms under her bosom, and Schwartz was pleased that he neither blushed nor lost eye contact; he must be getting used to her. It wasn’t even that he thought of her that way, really, but she did have a most impressive bust. And she accented it regularly and, he was sure, quite deliberately.

“I’m all ears.”

“You wouldn’t rather wait till later in the day?”

Somehow, that eyebrow rose even higher.

“Yes, right,” he sighed. “Well. It turns out the Legion sergeant in charge of all this is also a member of the Thieves’ Guild. And she knew my father. She said he helped her once with something important and she owed him, and since he’s gone now, she considered it her duty to help me out.”

“Wait. Stop.” Ami held up one hand peremptorily. “Did you really just tell me this Silver Legion sergeant is in the Thieves’ Guild? Is that allowed? Is it even possible?”

“I was rather curious about that, too,” he said frankly. “So were the apprentices. But she had a handful of troops following her, as well as the priestess in residence at the Avenist facility where they took us, and nobody contradicted her. And honestly, if anybody could’ve found the one Eserite Legionnaire in all the world to strike up a friendship with, it would’ve been my dad.”

Meesie squeaked rather mournfully, patting his ear. He reached up to scratch her head with a fingertip. She had only known Anton Schwartz briefly, but the elder Schwartz had been quite fond of the little elemental.

“So,” he went on, shrugging, “in a way, this ended up being a more perfect result than we could’ve hoped for. And now I am really indescribably tired…”

“Hmm.” Ami turned to frown out the window, placing herself in profile relative to him, and he sighed and shifted his own eyes to stare stubbornly at a bookcase. There was no way she didn’t do this on purpose. “Yes, that does sound good, doesn’t it? But also risky. If she’s in the Legion… That’s awfully close to Basra.”

“Yes,” he said wearily, “which is why it’s perfect as opposed to merely great.”

“You know,” she mused, a smile growing over her features, “I do believe you’re right. Very well, then! I shall forgive you for making me worry. We had better get planning on…”

She trailed off, having turned to face him. Schwartz was slumped forward in his chair, emitting a soft buzzing noise from his nose. Meesie climbed up onto his head and squeaked once, pointing one paw warningly at Ami.

The bard sighed and shook her head, but permitted herself a small, fond smile. “All right, then. Tomorrow. There’s time.”


“Good morning, Locke!”

Principia sighed, pausing to salute, the rest of her squad straggling to a halt to emulate her. They were ragged—not that it had been a particularly grueling night, just a very long one. She and Nandi were faring well, but drawing from stores of energy in the event of sleeplessness was an elven skill they weren’t able to share with the squad.

“Morning, Captain,” she said as Dijanerad approached. “You’re up early.”

“No, I’m not,” the captain replied with a smile. “On army time, this is business as usual. You’re out late.”

“Wasn’t my idea, ma’am,” Principia replied. “But it ended up being a good night’s work.”

“And I’m afraid it’s not done yet,” Dijanerad said, her expression growing grimmer. “The High Commander wants you, Locke. Soon as you were back, which is now.”

Principia drew in a deep breath and let it out through her nose. “What could she possibly need at this hour?”

“Well, gee, Locke, I don’t know. I bet if you ask her that, in exactly that tone, it’ll make a perfect ice-breaker.”

“I don’t know if I mention it often enough, Cap, but you’re my favorite.”

“That’s because I’m far too tolerant of your horseshit, and no, you don’t. Best get cracking, Locke. Patience is among Commander Rouvad’s many virtues, but…not so much with you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting again, and turned back to her squad. “Go get some rest, ladies. Except you, Elwick. Five laps. Move it.”

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Epilogue – Volume 3

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Warm weather had lingered throughout the continent, to the point that rumors had begun circulating about Ouvis’s displeasure and the Empire’s plans to employ various magical schemes to bring on winter. Any of these could be debunked by theological scholars acquainted with Ouvis’s habits (he had none to speak of) or magicians aware of the possibilities regarding weather control (there were no possibilities; you could manipulate the weather, not control it, and the manipulation was exceedingly inadvisable). Fortunately, the winds turned cold and the first snows began to fall before any of these nascent fears could get out of hand.

In a certain cabin barracks at the Silver Legion’s main fortress in Tiraas, more than a few jokes were made about how perfectly the onset of chilly skies and falling snow coincided with the return of one Bishop Basra Syrinx.

Three weeks later, they weren’t laughing. The housing provided to the Legionnaires of the Ninth Cohort was perfectly adequate—Avenist ethics wouldn’t allow soldiers to be deprived of necessities—but there was a wide distance between adequate and comfortable. The cabin was kept warm enough by the decades-old arcane stove provided, barely. Changing in and out of armor had become something of an ordeal, and all of them had changed bunks to sleep as far from the door and as close to the heat source as possible. Ironically, the much older technology of wood-fired iron stoves would have put off more heat, but in Tiraas, power crystals and enchanting dust were easier to obtain (not to mention store) than firewood, and the Legion quartermasters obstinately refused to spring for a refurbishment. Meanwhile, at the other end of the cabin, it remained cool enough that frost didn’t melt from the outside of the windows.

Thus, Principia got the usual round of unfriendly looks when she threw the door open. Her sunny mood, unsurprisingly, did not improve the reception.

“Gooooood evening, ladies!” she said brightly. “Everybody enjoyed dinner, I trust?”

“Shut that damn door, you maniac!” Merry barked, huddling by the stove.

“First, Lang, I have spoken to you about melodrama. It isn’t that cold. You wait till midwinter; you’ll feel a right fool for complaining about this. And second, we have company, so could you turkeys at least pretend there’s a semblance of a functioning chain of command in this barracks?”

She continued into the room, revealing the other soldier behind her, as the rest of Squad One got to their feet. In the next moment, they all snapped to attention, saluting.

“Bishop Shahai,” Farah blurted. “This is a surprise.”

“At ease, ladies,” Nandi said with a little smile, turning to pull the door closed behind her. “And surely you know it’s no longer Bishop. I was merely keeping the seat warm, as it were, and now its owner has returned to reclaim it.”

“Yes…we know,” Casey said quietly, relaxing her posture. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s, uh, good to see you again.”

“And in armor,” Ephanie added with a smile. “That’ll take some getting used to, Captain.”

“I fancy I’ve grown rather adept at getting used to things over the years, Avelea,” Nandi replied, smiling back and hoisting the rucksack she was carrying over one armored shoulder. “But before we all catch up, I believe Sergeant Locke has some announcements to make.”

“Yes, indeed I do,” Principia went on with the same mischievous cheer, opening the folder of papers she had held tucked under her arm. “Front and center, Avelea!”

Ephanie blinked, but didn’t join in the round of puzzled glances that passed between the others; relaxed as Principia preferred to keep things within their own barracks, she was the most devoted to military decorum among them. As ordered, she stepped forward to the middle of the aisle between bunks, falling naturally into parade rest.

“Ephanie Avelea,” Principia said more solemnly, “you are hereby advanced to the rank of Corporal, with all attendant duties and privileges. Furthermore,” she added, quelling Farah’s excited gasp with a stern look, “I am designating you executive officer of this squadron. Both are effective immediately.”

Ephanie’s lower lip trembled, but only for a second, before she snapped to attention and saluted, fist over heart. Only the lack of a sword, which she wasn’t wearing, diminished the gesture, and that not by much. “Thank you, Sergeant,” she said crisply.

“That’s all you have to say?” Principia asked somewhat wryly.

Ephanie swallowed once. “I… It really is. Thank you.”

“Now, I’m aware that it’s tradition in the military for officers not to bother explaining themselves as a general rule,” Principia went on, sweeping a glance across the rest of the squad, all of whom looked more excited even than Ephanie. “However, we’re a small unit, and within this little family, I want to make sure you all understand where I’m coming from with this.”

“It’s hardly a question, is it?” Farah burst out eagerly. “She has tons more experience than any of us! Weren’t you a Lieutenant, Ephanie?”

“Sides,” Merry added, grinning, “any of the rest of these jokers claiming to be officer material would be good for a laugh and not much else.”

“Stow that kind of talk,” Principia said flatly. “You’ve all got potential I don’t think you’re aware of, and the only reason I don’t ride your asses harder about it is the rest of you have all indicated you’re not planning to stick with the Legions as a career once your contracted enlistment is up. And even so, there are going to be some changes around here in that direction. But yes, back on point. Avelea does have the experience and the know-how, but that’s only half of it. You’re a by-the-books soldier, Ephanie,” she added directly to the new corporal. “And I, to put it mildly, am not. More importantly, you’ve consistently managed to support me with your knowledge of and devotion to the Legion’s principles and regulations, without ever undercutting my authority or butting heads with me.”

“You get the credit for that, ma’am,” Ephanie replied, still saluting. “You’ve always been quick to ask for input.”

“It’s a two-way street, and at ease, woman, for heaven’s sake. The point is, quite apart from your innate qualifications, you’re what I need both backing me up and counterbalancing me.”

“I won’t let you down, Sergeant,” Ephanie promised fervently.

“I know that quite well, Corporal,” Principia said with a grin. “Quite frankly I’ve had this in mind almost since I was promoted, but there have been…details to consider. Which brings me to our next item of business!” Turning, she smiled at Shahai, who was watching the proceedings with a warm little smile of her own. “This had to wait, Avelea, so you could be promoted first to preserve your seniority in the squad—an outdated and perhaps unnecessary little rule, but I’m being very careful to leave no wiggle room for someone to start picking us apart, and you know who I mean.”

She paused for emphasis, and they all gazed back at her in mute understanding. So far, none of them had heard directly from Bishop Syrinx, though Jenell Covrin had been spotted around the temple and adjoining fortress.

“The other thing I’ve arranged required paperwork which needed the approval of High Commander Rouvad, who did not want to give it.”

“Sergeant Locke approached me about this some time ago,” Nandi said, her smile tugging upward further on one side and taking on a sly undertone. “I began a campaign of persuasion upon Farzida as soon as I was able to relinquish the Bishop’s office. It has only borne fruit, finally, today.”

“The voluntary grade reduction for someone of Shahai’s status goes all the way to the top, I’m afraid,” Principia said smugly. “But Shahai has proved her worth—as if we haven’t all seen plenty of evidence of it already—and got her way. Ladies, may I introduce Corporal Nandi Shahai, the newest member of Squad Three Nine One.”

“Bwuh?” Farah said.

“Pick any bunk you like the look of,” Principia said directly to Nandi. “Except Lang’s, of course. Not that I don’t encourage you to push Lang around, but I think she has mites.”

“Oh, look,” Merry said dryly, folding her arms. “She ruined a nice moment. What were the odds.”

“W-welcome aboard…Corporal,” Casey said hesitantly.

“Yes, welcome,” Ephanie repeated. “I think…this is a very good idea, Sarge. She’s perfect for our squad’s assigned objectives.”

“Not to mention the un-assigned ones,” Principia said easily.

The others exchanged another wary look.

“You’ve, um, talked with her about…?” Casey trailed off, looking uncertainly at Nandi.

“Not explicitly, no,” their new squadmate replied, “but it’s exceedingly obvious that you will be contending directly with Basra Syrinx, and sooner rather than later. That she will be coming after you is an unavoidable conclusion—quite apart from the humiliation she suffered right under your eyes, which she won’t forgive, the fact is that your squad is a professional threat to her. Your assigned duties eat into the additional powers and responsibilities she has taken on beyond the standard job of the Bishop. I strongly suspect none of you are complacent enough or foolish enough to let her come without meeting her in kind, and I know Sergeant Locke isn’t.”

Principia beamed like the cat who’d eaten the whole aviary.

“And you’re…okay with this?” Casey asked warily.

Nandi’s smile faded, and she shook her head. “I am not okay in any sense with any part of this, ladies. What I am is in. I’ve been watching Basra Syrinx for a long time, and I know exactly what she represents and means for the Legions and the Sisterhood. Farzida believes she can be controlled and used to good advantage. So, I rather suspect, does the Archpope. I think you and I know better.”

“Nobody at the very top has a good view of what goes on in the shadows,” Principia agreed, nodding. “For now, let’s help the newbie get settled in, here, and then we have a promotion to celebrate! I know a perfect pub—discreet enough to keep us out of trouble, but not too much to be fun. And then…” She grinned wolfishly. “…we start working on our dear friend Basra.”


The office was illuminated only by the dim light of her desk lamp. She didn’t need even that to see; to elvish eyes, the moonlight streaming through the windows behind her was more than adequate for the letters she was writing. It cast a faint, rusty light over her desk, however, and created interesting shadows around the room. The lamp was more for ambiance than anything; she used it to great effect when intimidating unruly students (and sometimes parents), but had come to enjoy it for its own sake, too.

Only the soft scratch of her old-fashioned quill sounded in the room, at least aside from the soft flutter of wings as a small bird landed on the sill outside. Tellwyrn, who of course could hear that perfectly, too, ignored it. She also ignored the increasingly insistent croaking which followed. Only when the sharp, persistent tapping of a beak on the panes started up and refused to stop did she sigh in irritation, blow upon the ink to dry it, and put her quill away.

Spinning her chair around without bothering to get up, she un-latched the window and swung it outward, the bird nimbly hopping aside.

“I’m half-surprised you didn’t just blast it in,” she said acerbically.

“I really cannot imagine why,” Mary replied, swinging her legs in over the sill. She simply perched there, though, not coming the rest of the way inside. “When have you ever known me to do such things? Not everyone suffers from your delusions concerning what constitute social skills, Arachne.”

“From arriving to insulting me in seven seconds,” Tellwyrn said sourly. “Sadly, that is not a record. What the hell do you want, Kuriwa? I have a shit-ton of paperwork to get done before I’ll have the chance to enjoy a week’s vacation from the little bastards, and so help me, if you ruin my holiday you’ll leave this mountaintop minus a few feathers.”

The Crow stared piercingly into her eyes, all levity gone from her face. “Where is Araneid?”

Tellwyrn gazed right back. “Who?”

Mary just stared at her.

“You’re not as inscrutable as you like to think, Kuriwa,” Tellwyrn said, idly turning back toward her desk, but not too far to keep her visitor in view. “I know you recognized my name. I knew it the first time we met. And yet, in three thousand years, you have never once asked me about this. So now I have to wonder…” She edged the chair back to face the Crow directly, and leaned forward, staring over the rims of her spectacles. “What just happened?”

“I returned to Viridill weeks ago, on your advice,” Mary replied. “It was good advice, by the way, and you ended up being more right than you knew. I thank you; it proved very good that I was there. Among the interesting things I learned was the repeated occurrence of spider webs as a theme, seen binding and drawing various players in that drama to one another. They were glimpsed only in the medium of dreams, thanks to Khadizroth’s intervention—that is a specialty of his, as you probably remember.”

“Of course.”

“And the matter put me in mind of a conversation I had with Sheyann not long ago,” Mary continued. “I have been noting for a while that wherever an event of significance occurs, particularly on this continent, it seems to be centered around the same few people. The dreamscape, of course, has a way of interpreting complex things in a way that is meaningful to intelligent minds. All this makes me wonder what strings have been tightening around us all that I was simply not in a position to see, before.”

“Spider webs, hm,” Tellwyrn mused.

“And so, I repeat my question,” Mary said, her stare sharp and unyielding. “What is the current location and status of Araneid?”

Tellwyrn sighed. “Uh…dead? Undead? Mostly dead? Maybe sort of comatose, with a bit of unborn… It’s not simple, and quite frankly I never understood it well.”

“Go on,” Mary said flatly.

The sorceress twitched her shoulders in an irritated shrug. “You know, you really could have asked me about this in the beginning. It’s not a great secret. Or rather, I suppose I should say I’ve no care for the opinions of those who might want to keep it secret. I just don’t know, Kuriwa. What I know, you now do, and it took all of a moment to tell. I can add a little insight, though,” she said, folding her arms. “The corpse or sleeping body or whatever it is of a god makes a tremendous power source—but only another god would be able to make use of such a thing. To ask about a dead or almost dead deity, look for the living ones who have custody of her. If you want to know what happened to Araneid, ask Scyllith. If you want to get at her now, you’ll have to go through Avei. And in all seriousness, I wish you luck with it. I had just finished washing my hands of the whole sordid affair when we met the first time, and I will not be dragged back in.”

“Hmm,” the Crow mused, finally breaking eye contact and staring thoughtfully at the far wall. “The spider webs are not, after all, definitive proof of anything… But I have taken so long to come back here because I did my own research first. They are strongly associated with Araneid, and not just in myth. You say this goddess is…sort of dead, but not?”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “That’s as good a description as I could come up with, I suppose. Ask at the Abbey if you want to examine the…uh, body. I rather doubt they’d let you, though, and not even you are going to get through those defenses. Get too close to that thing, and Avei will land on you personally.”

“Is it possible,” Mary persisted, “that she could influence events across time? Your description suggests a revival of this Elder is possible. If this happens soon, what are the chances she could—”

“Kuriwa, I don’t know,” Tellwyrn exclaimed. “I’ve told you that. The magic involved is heinously complex and maybe comprehensible to me, but it was never explained, and I haven’t gone looking. I want out of the whole business. In theory, though? Sure, Araneid probably had that power, back in the days of the Elder Gods. I suspect most of them did. They didn’t have any equivalent of Vemnesthis watching against intrusions like that, and by the way, with him around and on duty she would have to be powerfully subtle to get away with it. Also… This would have to be very closely linked in time. If this is Araneid at work, she hasn’t been at it long. Someone would definitely have noticed before now. Probably someone in this room. Although…” Her expression grew faraway and thoughtful. “If it is within just a few years, though… There’s that great doom I haven’t been able to pin down. Alaric’s research points at an alignment of some kind… But of what we can’t figure out. It’s likely to be in just a few years, however. That could theoretically be a short enough time.”

Mary straightened up, suddenly frowning. “…Arachne, have you seen what is under Linsheh’s grove? I have long assumed that was an early stop on your own research.”

Tellwyrn grimaced. “Linsheh and I don’t get along.”

“Yes, your feud made waves I have not managed to ignore, but I’ve heard nothing about it in four hundred years. I had assumed you two made up.”

“Well. For a given value of ‘made up.’ I’m pretty sure I won.” The sorceress grinned. “After her last stunt, I teleported her eldest son’s birth tree out of the grove, had it carved into a collection of exotic marital aids, sold them off in Puna Dara and sent her the receipts. I haven’t heard a peep out of her since, so I declared victory.”

For a long moment, Mary stared at her in utter silence. Then, finally, she shook her head.

“You really are the worst person,” she said in a tone of weary disgust. “In all my ages alive on this world, I have known the sick and depraved, the cruel, the truly evil. But you. There is no soul, living or dead, who is your rival in sheer, pigheaded obnoxiousness.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Tellwyrn said, smirking. “Especially not when you come pecking on my window in the middle of the night smelling like a haystack and with your hair badly in need of a brush. A lady likes to be finessed.”

“If you are investigating what’s coming, particularly if you’re curious about alignments,” Mary said curtly, “you need to look at what is underneath that grove. The answers there could reflect on other things that are of interest to you, as well. And for the love of whatever it is you may love, Arachne, try to mend fences with Linsheh while you’re at it. I don’t know what happened between you or who started it, but she doesn’t deserve that kind of abuse. And we all will need to be able to reach out to one another in the near future, I suspect.”

She paused only to snort disdainfully, then turned and swung her legs out over the other side of the sill.

Tellwyrn watched the crow flap off into the night, frowning pensively.

“Hm… Well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.” She glanced disparagingly at her desk. “Then again, what doesn’t?”


“Have you all lost your goddamn minds!?”

It was well past dark and more than halfway toward midnight; sleet was pounding on the windows of Darling’s house, and the downstairs parlor had its fairy lamps turned as far down as possible, lit chiefly by the fire in the hearth. It was a cozy environment, the kind that would encourage sleepiness, if not for Style stomping up and down the carpet, raging at everyone.

“C’mon, now,” Darling protested. “You can’t possibly fail to see the benefits.”

“I don’t fail to see the benefits of ripping off the fucking Imperial treasury!” she snarled, pausing to glare down at him. “That doesn’t mean I don’t also see how that would bite me right the fuck on the ass!”

“How, though?” Tricks asked mildly. Aside from the circles under his eyes, he looked livelier than he had in weeks; all evening, he’d been growing more jolly as Style grew more irate. “You think the Sisterhood are going to spy on us? Quite apart from the fact they’ve shown no interest in doing that in eight thousand damn years, Style, this is not how you plant a spy. You don’t send a ranking officer of your army up to the enemy’s fortress and say ‘hello there, I would like to come spy, please.’ They’re not thieves, but a divinely-appointed military is definitely clever enough not to do something so thickheaded.”

“This is pretty much exactly what it looks like,” Darling added in the same calm tone. “A damn good idea, far too long coming, with huge potential benefits for both cults. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it first…although, it pretty much couldn’t have come from anyone else.” He grinned at the room’s other, quieter guest.

Style, meanwhile, clapped a hand dramatically over her eyes and groaned loudly. “You do it on purpose, Boss. And you, ex-Boss. You just like to see me suffer. I oughta throttle you both with your own fucking nutsacks.”

“Tea, Style?” Price asked diffidently.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Savvy,” the enforcer warned.

“It is my solemn hope that I do not have to start with you,” the Butler replied with characteristic serenity.

“What she means,” Sweet said with a grin, “is that it’d be politically awkward if she had to finish with you.”

“Style, you’ve been raging up and down for half an hour and generally making the point that this bugs you on an instinctive level,” said Tricks. “Fine, I get that. It’s your job, after all, to watch for threats. But if you’d seen a specific, credible threat here, you’d have said so by now. So with all respect, hun, button it. I’m making my decision: we’ll go ahead.”

Style snarled and kicked the rack of fireplace tools, sending them clattering across the carpet. Price swept silently in to tidy up.

“We’ll have to arrange a disguise, of course,” Darling said more seriously, studying his houseguest. “There’ll be all kinds of a flap if this gets out.”

“How the fuck are you going to disguise that?!” Style shouted.

“This is why I hate you sometimes,” Tricks informed her. “You never listen when I talk about what’s important to me. You don’t change a person’s whole appearance to disguise them, you just change the identifying details. Yessss… We’ll dye her hair, lose the uniform and give her a crash course in not walking like a soldier. It’s not like her face is widely known.”

Style snorted thunderously and halted her pacing directly in front of the chair next to Tricks’s. “Don’t you think for a second,” she warned, leveling a pointing finger, “that I’m gonna go easy on you, trixie.”

Trissiny, who had been silent for the last ten minutes as the conversation continued around her, slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the chief enforcer’s.

“If you insulted me by trying,” she said quietly, “I would lay you out. Again.”

Tricks burst out laughing. “Oh, but this is fantastic! It’s exactly the opportunity both our cults need—I love every part of this! Especially Style’s bloomers being in a bunch, that’s always good comedy.”

“I know where you sleep, twinkletoes!”

Ignoring her, he stood as well, turning to face their guest, and extended a hand. Trissiny clasped it in her own, gauntlet and all.

“It’s decided, then. You may all consider this official.” The Boss grinned broadly, pumping the paladin’s hand once. “Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild, apprentice.”

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