Tag Archives: Nandi Shahai

13 – 12

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“By that,” Toby said slowly, “do you mean its enchantments are still active?”

Fross chimed in annoyance. “They are, but no, if I had meant that I would have said that. I always try to be precise! What I mean is, I think this object is both artificially constructed and a living organism.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sorry, no offense meant.”

The pixie zoomed over to buzz affectionately around his head once. “I know, Toby, I’m sorry for getting irked. I’m in analytical mode, it makes me impatient.”

“Now, hang on!” Juniper exclaimed. “Something cannot be artificially made and still a living thing!”

“That is a fallacy,” Ariel’s voice interjected. “Such beings do not occur in nature, but there are ample specimens from the annals of magical history.”

“What the hell was that?” Merry exclaimed in alarm.

“Ariel.” Gabriel drew the black sword and held her up; her runes flickered a dull blue in the light. “She’s very particular about magical matters. Helpful, too, most of the time.”

“Young man,” Nandi said very evenly, “do you know where talking swords come from?”

He sighed and sheathed Ariel again. “Yes, I do, and nobody here had a hand in making her. We found her in the Crawl. Fross, you were telling us about that arm?”

“Yes, thank you!” the pixie exclaimed. “If everyone’s listening now? Okay, so I’ve analyzed this thing as carefully as possible in this timeframe and with this equipment and what I’ve discovered is that it is clearly a machine, it was not built by anybody who thinks the way any modern enchanter or engineer does, and as I said, its nature is more organic than mechanical despite being mechanical and made of minerals.”

“Yeah, can we focus on that part first?” Juniper suggested. “Because that doesn’t make a lick of sense to—”

Fross rose two feet toward the ceiling, her glow brightening significantly on the way, and emitted a wordless arpeggio of sheer irritation.

“Uh…” Juniper actually took a step back from the examining table. “Actually…why don’t you just go over it in…y’know, whatever order makes sense to you.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” Fross replied, drifting back down toward the subject of her research. “Anyway. First of all, the device itself is not enchanted, exactly. Its interior structure is a series of pretty simple cables and pulleys which stand in for muscles, ligaments, all that stuff. There are no inner bones, since of course the outer structure is rigid metal, so it’s organized differently. The enchantments are contained in tiny crystals affixed to each joint.”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” Gabriel said hesitantly. “But does that mean there’s no central enchantment at all?”

“Exactly!” Fross said, clearly growing excited again. “That’s the beauty of it! See, Juniper tore this one off at the elbow, which is probably why I can’t find an enchantment that makes it interface with the human body. The little crystals only govern each mechanism individually; that interface charm was probably on the piece attached right to the human. But! These enchantments are incredibly efficient compared to ours because they have no power component! They only carry instructions for the machine parts; the energy is conducted through a series of metal filaments encased in a rubber-like non-conductive medium. It runs on electricity, not magic!”

“I thought electricity was pretty much only good for weapons,” Casey said, leaning forward on her chair.

“It is good for weapons,” Farah replied, “but actually, the nervous systems of all living things run on tiny electrical charges. That’s why lightning wands tend to cause nerve damage and sometimes even brain disorders.”

“Exactly!” Fross said eagerly, swooping around the table in erratic circles. “These appear to draw their power directly from the body! Except it takes more energy to move metal than flesh simply because of its weight, so that wouldn’t exactly work, which makes me think there must be a power source of some kind with some much more sophisticated enchantments connected to the host body. But! In addition to being very alien in design, this thing is made of components that aren’t like anything I’ve ever seen. The different alloys used for the casing, the moving parts, the metal wires… I can’t even identify any of them. Likewise the insulating material; it’s like rubber, but obviously synthetic. And these enchantment crystals most of all! It’s like… This kind of enchantment does exist now, but modern data crystals are new and pretty rare, and also not nearly as efficient. These ones aren’t much bigger than grains of sand and anything I could make to do their job would be about the size of an average lightning wand’s power crystal.”

“So, it’s magic more sophisticated than anything known,” Anjal said, frowning. “With every new revelation I get more nervous about this Elder God business. Naphthene’s tits, these bastards are all over the city!”

“Well, it’s hard to compare that kind of sophistication directly,” Fross cautioned. “Compared to the state of modern industrial enchantment, yes. But that itself is very new; individual archmages throughout history were known to make stuff like this. Well, I mean, not like this necessarily, but things so amazing modern enchanters still don’t understand how they work. Magic mirrors, for instance. We even understand those, but they’re fiendishly hard and we haven’t yet cracked mass-production of them.”

“Or talking swords, for example,” Nandi said.

Gabriel turned to give her a flat look. “Is this going to become a problem?”

“I dearly hope not,” she replied, expressionless.

“Anyway!” Fross continued more loudly. “The really, really interesting part is the organic part! Yes, Juniper, I’m coming to it. Okay, so, one thing that jumped out at me is there’s nothing in there except the devices that make it move. The thing about anything with moving parts is that moving them wears them down; they require repair and maintenance. With engineered machines, you have to get into ’em and do it manually; biological organisms have built-in systems for maintenance, which is obviously more efficient and exactly why those organisms are so much more complex than any machine. So! What’s interesting here is that this device is clearly not designed to be dismantled! The pieces are solid, and even the ones that move connect firmly in a way that clearly isn’t meant to be disconnected. Therefore, since it has no way to access it internally to perform repairs, there has to be a built-in mechanism for that!”

“What if they don’t repair them?” Casey suggested. “Just…take ’em off and throw ’em away when they wear out.”

Fross shot upward in indignation. “Excuse me, but I refuse to believe any intelligence capable of creating a machine like this would make a design choice so inefficient, wasteful, and catastrophically stupid.”

“Sorry,” Casey said, holding up her hands in surrender. “You’re the boss.”

“It’s pronounced Fross, actually,” Ruda said with a grin.

“So,” the pixie continued, “I went looking for traces of this mechanism and guess what I found!”

“Or,” Toby said quickly when several people opened their mouths, “just tell us? For efficiency’s sake, if nothing else.”

Fross appeared not to hear him, carrying on at a rapid clip while bouncing up and down in midair. “While I was doing exploratory divinations, I actually caught the damaged edges of the metal casing rebuilding itself, filling in scratches and trying to extend toward the part that’s broken off! And, and! That prompted me to take a closer structural look at the metal itself, and it was clearly not molded, cast, or worked using any known means. It was built up one atom at a time, like the way mollusks grow shells, but on an even smaller scale somehow adding up to a finished product on a much greater scale than any clam! Isn’t that amazing?”

Everyone stared at the apparently inert metal arm for a moment of silence, Merry and Casey standing up to see better.

“Amazing is a word,” Ruda said at last. “The one that springs to my mind is ‘creepy.’ With some adjectives. You all know my favorite ones, I think.”

“But…you couldn’t find any standing enchantment that’s doing that?” Gabriel asked.

“No, I couldn’t!”

“So,” Teal said, “we still don’t understand what force animates this thing, but now we know it’s still active and doing so right now.”

“If I may make a recommendation,” said Ariel, “it may be too late in this case but for future reference, it would be wise to handle any such objects as if they presented a threat of contagion.”

“Holy shit,” Gabriel muttered, “we’ve got the queen and the princess in this room… All right, everybody! We’re gonna do a thorough cleansing and general healing.”

“Do you really think that’s necessary, boy?” Anjal asked dryly, folding her arms.

“I have no idea,” he replied, “but none of us have any idea about anything, here, and I don’t think we can afford to take risks.”

“He’s right,” Toby said, placing a hand on Gabriel’s shoulder. “About the risks and sensible countermeasures, not so much the part where he started barking orders at the aforementioned queen and princess.”

“Oh.” Gabriel’s cheeks colored. “I, uh…sorry, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s all right, Arquin, we’re used to you,” Ruda said, slugging his other shoulder and grinning. “Future reference, don’t get pushy with Punaji women unless you’re lookin’ to get your ass married and/or stabbed.”

“And/or?” Ephanie muttered.

“Seriously, though, let’s please just do this,” Gabriel said a little nervously. “Uh… Juniper’s the tricky one. Either divine healing or the cleansing charms I can do will hurt her.”

“I’m not sure I need it,” the dryad said, folding her arms. “I’m pretty impervious in the first place, and anyway, I have my own means.”

“Okay, but…wouldja humor me, Juno? Whatever you’ve got to check for and cleanse any kind of corruption… I know you’re a dryad, but remember you don’t have Naiya to rely on now and there’s no telling what these guys are capable of…”

“Yeah, I see your point,” she said with a sigh. “Okay, I’m just gonna go to that corner over there and concentrate. Can you try to keep your divine magic in the other side of the room?”

“Can do!” Gabriel said, saluting. “Now, uh… Toby, you’re much better at healing than I am. I think you’d better take point, here.”

“Sure,” Toby said, peering at him. “Did I hear you say you can do cleansing charms? That’s impressive stuff, Gabe, I had no idea you were that advanced.”

“Gabriel is very good at enchanting!” Fross chimed. “I’m a much more general-purpose arcanist, and I frequently ask his help with passive enchantment work! And we worked hard on getting those cleansing charms right for our semester project. See, the trick is including the right modifiers so they only identify and purge hostile elements from the body and not the symbiotic bacteria that aid digestion! We made a lot of poor rats very sick…”

“You keep your fuckin’ finger wiggling away from me,” Ruda ordered Gabriel, taking a step back.

Nandi cleared her throat, stepping forward. “I am a priestess. Less innately powerful than Mr. Caine, obviously, but with five centuries of experience in several fields of healing. I would be glad to help.”

“You would be very welcome,” Toby said emphatically. “My thanks, Corporal Shahai. Now, let’s please organize everybody into a line over here, we’ll want to give everybody our full attention, not just fling magic around. Corporal, would you walk us through the recommended procedure, please?”

While Nandi began instructing the students, Merry glanced sidelong at Juniper, who had just passed them and was now sitting in the corner with her eyes closed, then leaned forward and lowered her voice to a bare whisper, nodding in Teal’s direction. “So, uh… What’s the deal with that one?”

“She’s possessed,” Principia replied in the same quiet tone. “Bonded with the archdemon Vadrieny.” Farah swallowed loudly, staring at Teal with wide eyes.

“You’ve…heard of that particular demon?” Merry asked her.

“Archdemon,” Farah whispered. “Daughter of Elilial. Demonic demigoddess, technically. Vadrieny has killed…well, a lot.”

“We always make the neatest friends,” Casey murmured. Everyone shifted to stare at her; neither her expression nor tone revealed whether she was being sarcastic.

“And you,” Merry finally said, prodding Principia in the shoulder, “drugged her to get her out of your way. Some balls on you, woman. Not an iota of sense, but still.”

“It seemed worthwhile at the time,” Principia said with a sigh. “Okay, Lang, that’s as good as an opening as you’re likely to get. Planning to make with the barrage of screeching and questions, now? Quite frankly, the anticipation has been worse than what your voice does to my ears when you get in one of your episodes.”

“I do not have ‘episodes,’” Merry said sullenly. “Anyhow…no. Oh, I was gonna, but I spent the awkward silence while we were getting frog-marched here thinking—shut your mouth, Elwick!—and it actually makes perfect sense, like the princess said. Obviously, if Rouvad was gonna let you in the Legions, it would be with a huge list of stipulations about what you can’t say to whom. So, no, LT, I don’t take being kept in the dark personally, this one time.”

“I can’t tell you what a load off my mind that is,” Principia said sweetly.

Merry grinned right back. “Yeah, well. After the way she lit into you, I figured you two have enough issues without me picking at it.”

Ephanie sighed. “And still, you had to bring that up. You were almost considerate for a moment there, Lang.”

Merry just smiled. “I assume Shahai knew about this, too? She’s got Rouvad’s ear on everything.”

“I knew,” Casey said quietly, then shrugged when the others turned to stare at her again. “Locke pretty deliberately left the breadcrumbs. You just had to follow ’em.”

“Of course she did,” Ephanie said, turning to Principia in exasperation. “Locke, have you ever been given an order you didn’t feel an immediate need to weasel around?”

“No,” Prin said immediately, grinning. “Not once. But I have many times received orders I didn’t actually weasel around. If I just went and did everything I felt a need to, I’d have had a much more interesting sex life. And also would be dead by now.”

“I would prefer not to hear any more about either of those prospects, please,” said Merry.

Their conversation, and Nandi’s instruction of Toby, was interrupted by a rap at the door. A second later, it opened, revealing the royal seneschal.

“Bad news, Akhatrya!” Ruda said merrily. “You’re infected, now! Join the line!”

“Zari, my rules about you hassling the staff don’t change just because you’re halfway to college-educated,” Anjal snapped, whisking her hat off and swatting Ruda over the head with it. “What is it, Akhatrya?”

“Your pardon, Majesty, Princess, honored guests,” the tall, bearded man said, bowing deeply. “There is an unexpected visitor in the palace seeking an audience with both the Crown and with Lieutenant Locke.” He turned another, shallower bow specifically upon Principia. “A representative from the local Thieves’ Guild.”

Anjal narrowed her eyes. “I see. And this visitor is not meeting with the King because…?”

Akhatrya’s face betrayed no expression. “His Majesty the King feels that since you are both together, it is the most efficient course of action for you to meet Miss Lagrande.”

“Lagrande?” Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Quinn Lagrande? She’s still alive?”

“One hopes so, Lieutenant,” Akhatrya said placidly. “She was moments ago. If she is otherwise now, we shall have most interesting conversations with the Guild in the days to come.”

“Great,” Anjal muttered. “You win this time, husband, but there will be a reckoning. Oh, yes, there will. Well, Akhatrya, I’m afraid our little Zari wasn’t wrong. Join the line, please. This Quinn Lagrande will just have to wait a few minutes longer.”


Ox Whippoorwill stepped into the Ale & Wenches and paused just inside, exchanging nods with a couple of citizens. Most didn’t notice him, being too absorbed in their conversations. Everything about the scene was…off. It was far too crowded for the early afternoon, and almost all those present were Rockies, while the A&W primarily catered to out-of-towners. Its usual clientele were present in small numbers; they were identifiable as the few people sitting at tables by themselves, looking somewhat bemused by what was going on around them.

What was going on was just conversation, so far. They were intense conversations, though, and not all of them quiet. Ox stood for a handful of heartbeats, soaking it in—just long enough to hear a few key words. Then he moved out of the door and began making his way around the perimeter of the room toward the only man present aside from the bartender who wasn’t sitting.

“Deputy,” Fedora said, nodding at Ox’s approach. He was blatantly lurking, just beside the stairs, and just as blatantly watching the room. More than a few of those gathered kept casting pointed glances his direction. So far, at least, nobody was staring.

“Inspector,” Ox rumbled in reply. “An’ it’s just Ox. Titles are for when I gotta get official with somebody.”

“Very well, same goes,” Fedora said, momentary amusement cracking his pensive expression. He took a sip of the pint of beer in his hand. It was almost full, clearly being used as a prop to justify his presence to the proprietor.

“Oh? I figured Inspectors kept the right to the title even after they retired. Like military ranks, or professors.”

“I actually would have to look up the rules on that,” Fedora murmured, again staring across the bar. “Regardless, I’m not in with the Empire any longer. That was a good job and I’m glad to have held it, but it’s best not to dwell on the past, I find.”

“Mm.” Ox took a position next to him and folded his arms, feeling no need to bother getting a drink. He wanted his head clear, and since being officially deputized he had no need of an excuse to stand around in a public place.

For a few minutes, they stood in silence. Watching, and listening.

“Is it like this all over town?” Fedora asked finally, then took another tiny sip.

“A mite calmer,” Ox replied. “Folk meetin’ on the street, havin’ little chats. In shops an’ behind shops… Nothin’ else is as boisterous as this right here. ‘Swhy I came to keep an eye on this crowd. Even the Saloon’s not as packed, or as…intense. Jonas won’t stand for no funny business in his place, either.”

Fedora nodded very slowly. “Tell me…are you seeing the same thing wrong with this picture I am?”

“It’s too damn fast,” Ox said immediately, keeping his voice low. With the hubbub in the room, it wasn’t hard to be discreet. “Not that it’s a small thing, exactly, the University sponsorin’ some kinda demon-summonin’ project, but… I know this town. I know the rhythms an’ the balance of opinions. There ain’t enough folks suspicious of the school to create this kinda hubbub this quick. Even if there was… The announcement was just posted, after lunch. Normally, folks’d only just be hearin’ the first rumors. This is all over. An’ you can plainly see how tense it’s gettin’.”

Again, that very slow nod. Fedora let his eyes wander across the crowded tavern, having another sip that barely wet his lips. “The Sheriff know about this?”

“I came right here when this started up, ain’t talked with him yet. Sam’s got ears, though. He knows his job, an’ he knows this town.”

“Hm.”

“Reminds me of a while back,” Ox continued after a pause. “We damn near had an honest-to-gods riot in this town, an’ it turns it there was a rogue Vidian priestess doin’ some kinda hoodoo, makin’ people more susceptible. You don’t suppose…”

This time, Fedora shook his head negatively, and with more energy. “I don’t know Last Rock as well as you, Ox, but I know people, and I know trouble. You’re right: this is too quick. Much too quick a result. And your instinct is equally right. I’m never willing to trust that out-of-the-ordinary behavior happens on this scale without being made to. But look at the pattern.” He gestured slowly around the room with his nearly-full glass. “Look at the different expressions. There are people nervous, people pissed off… But most uncertain, and just as many peacemakers as agitators. Folks speaking up on Tellwyrn’s behalf. If there was a magical effect in place to agitate people, like in your example, we wouldn’t see all these people standing back and listening, waiting to form their own opinions. If there was some kind of more aggressive control trying to turn people against Tellwyrn, same goes and she wouldn’t have this many defenders.” Again, he shook his head, and took a sip. “No need to assume some grandiose, cosmic effect in place. Just somebody stirring up shit. Someone skillful, well-connected in this town. Someone who knows the social landscape well enough to launch a very effective rumor campaign.”

“You’re sayin’ it’s one o’ my neighbors,” Ox growled.

“Maybe,” Fedora said noncommittally. “It would take more than one to do this so efficiently, but don’t jump to any conclusions. There are a lot of new faces in Last Rock lately, some who’ve been here long enough to have learned what they’d need to do this, assuming they had the right skills to begin with. This used to be a town where everybody knew everybody else; now, suddenly, it’s not anymore. You couldn’t ask for an easier target for infiltration.”

Ox heaved a deep sigh, his breath ruffling his mustache. “Omnu’s balls. You know who’s doin’ this, Fedora?”

“Not yet,” the erstwhile Inspector replied, a predatory glint rising in his eyes. “That…will take a little work. I’m going to have a long stroll around town, Ox. Chat with some people, listen in. You and the Sheriff have no objection, I trust?”

“Respect the law,” Ox rumbled, “respect the people, an’ don’t stir up no more trouble. Aside from that, ain’t my business or the Sheriff’s what you do.”

“Oh, I don’t intend to stir the pot, you can count on that,” Fedora said, straightening up and casting a weird little smile around the room. “But I am going to find out who’s got their hands on the spoon.”

 

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13 – 11

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“And so, you have come to me.” Ami Talaari smirked, folded her arms strategically under her bosom, and leaned against the frame of her apartment door. After having swept a disdainful look around at his entourage of junior Eserites, she had seemingly dismissed them from consideration and focused her gaze upon Schwartz. “Really, Herschel, you ought to have done so in the first place. Who else do you know who has her finger upon the city’s pulse?”

“Yo.” Darius, at the back of the little crowd outside her apartment door, raised his hand. Everyone ignored him.

“Aha, well, yes,” Schwartz said self-consciously, managing a weak grin. “It really hasn’t been all that long, Ami. I went to get these guys first because I thought they might be in immediate danger… But you’re the first person we’ve come to!” Meesie nodded vigorously, bounding from his shoulder to the top of his head and adding a squeak of affirmation.

“Because you’re being hunted?” She finally looked past him again, studying the apprentices with a bit more interest. “These are the Eserites you know, yes? Why not go to the Guild for help? I’m certainly not shy about my talents, but that seems, if anything, a better source of intelligence on movements in the city. Not that I can’t help, of course,” she added with a smug little smile. “Just…curious.”

“Well, the thing is…” Schwartz cleared his throat. “We’re not sure who to trust or where we can go at the moment, and even my rooms at the Collegium have been spied on, so that’s possibly not safe…”

“Yeeeessss?” Ami’s smile widened. “I’ll warn you I have little direct access to the Collegium except through you, Herschel. But give me a few hours and I’m sure I can turn up something.”

“Um.” He cleared his throat again. “Actually, we just need to borrow your apartment for a little bit. I need a secure space to cast some divination, so we can figure out where to go next.”

Her smile instantly vanished. Ami stared at Schwartz in silence for two heartbeats, then took a step backward, grabbed the door, and swung it shut.

“Waitwaitwaitwait!” Schwartz squawked, sticking a foot in the doorway to block it. “It’s not just that, Syrinx is involved!”

She stopped trying to kick his foot out of the doorway, and pulled it a few inches back open, her eyes now narrowed in suspicion. “How?”

“That’s just it, I don’t know yet, and believe me all this is terrifying enough without her snooping around the periphery after the gods know what!” He surreptitiously wrapped his fingers around the edge of the door frame, seemingly unconcerned with the danger to them should she manage to shove his foot out of the gap. It at least gave Meesie the opportunity to scamper down his arm and add her earnest squeaks to his plea. “She’s not the only old familiar face that’s suddenly showing up in connection with this. Ildrin Falaridjad is involved; she tried to have Jasmine, Tallie and Layla thrown in jail so she could interrogate them!”

“Ildrin?” Ami’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why in the name of Boslin’s flute is she not in jail?”

“Being neck deep in a powerful conspiracy’s probably handy for that,” Tallie remarked.

“And,” Schwartz continued doggedly, “it was Syrinx who intercepted her and bailed them out. I know those two have a mutual grudge but I can’t help being very suspicious when Basra shows up being helpful.”

Ami heaved a deep sigh—very deep, and accompanied by a subtle shift of her shoulders and back that made her chest swell, prompting Darius and Ross to shift their gaze momentarily. Schwartz, at least, was apparently used to her enough to maintain eye contact. “Oh, very well,” she said with poor grace. “I suppose you’d better come in, then.”

“You are a lifesaver,” Schwartz said emphatically, following her inside as she stepped back and let the door swing wide.

“Yes, well, I suppose someone has to rescue you, since your good friend Principia is out of pocket.”

He paused, prompting an annoyed throat-clearing from Darius, and then shifted aside to let the rest of them in. “How’d you know about that?”

“Forget to keep me in the loop, did you?” Ami positioned herself in front of the window and folded her arms dramatically, tilting her chin up. “Just because that elf is nominally friendly toward us doesn’t absolve her of being one of the most suspicious people we know. Believe me, I take great pains to be notified of any change in her routine. For example, her whole squad not showing up at any of their usual posts for a day and a half.”

“That is a wise policy,” Jasmine murmured.

“Holy crap, this place is nice,” Tallie said, adding a whistle as she peered around the apartment. “And you’re…a bard?”

“You were going to say just a bard, weren’t you.” Ami smiled smugly. “In much the way that you’re just a thief. We all have backstories, my dear. Touch that instrument and whatever problems you are having, they will increase by an order of magnitude.”

She hadn’t even been looking in the direction of Layla, whose fingertips were inches from the guitar propped upright on a reading chair, but Layla froze anyway.

“Uh, yeah,” Ross rumbled, gently taking Layla by the shoulders and pulling her back a few steps. “You don’t mess with a bard’s instrument. Ever.”

“My apologies,” Layla said, uncharacteristically demure.

“In case it doesn’t go without saying, now that my home is full of Eserites, I would prefer that there be no casual appropriation of any of my possessions.”

“Ami, there’s no need to get hostile,” Scwhartz reproved. “We appreciate your help very much, but you know quite well that Eserites don’t just grab whatever’s not nailed down.”

She just shook her head. “So! You are being stalked, apparently, by the Church loyalists, who by implication have become much more organized recently. I’m still lost on the point where the lot of you didn’t approach your own Guild first for help.”

There was a silence, in which even Meesie did not squeak.

“Wait, who?” Jasmine said at last. “Church loyalists?”

“Oh, really,” Ami said disdainfully. “Surely you didn’t think all this began in response to you.”

“I like her,” Tallie said in her driest tone. “She’s a sweetie.”

“Perhaps it’s best, after all, that you came to an accredited bard,” Ami said with a sigh, and turned to gaze out the window. She had a lovely view of a nearby park, surrounded by historic townhouses. “All of this descends directly from the Enchanter Wars; you lot and your troubles are only the latest manifestation of this conflict.”

While her back was turned, Darius carefully nudged Ross with his elbow, and then held both hands up in a cupping motion a good distance from his chest, waggling his eyebrows. Ross just shook his head, but Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla all swatted him simultaneously from behind. Despite her seemingly inhuman sense for fingers in the vicinity of her guitar, Ami did not respond to or appear to notice the chorus of slaps, continuing with her spiel.

“The Silver Throne and the Universal Church have been jockeying for influence for the last century, all because of the way the Enchanter Wars were ultimately settled. Before that, the Church was little but a formality, a kind of interfaith negotiating service. But then, Archpope Sipasian contributed to the outbreak of war by taking sides in the Salyrite schism, persecuting witches, and ultimately making enemies of the Sisters of Avei, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Veskers.” She clicked her tongue as if chiding the long-ago pontiff. “So immediately, when Archpope Vyara took over, she tried to scale back the Church’s power to avoid more infighting. But then she also participated in a scheme to place a new dynasty on the Silver Throne, under the control of the Church and a couple of the dominant Houses. Then it turned out they’d backed the wrong horse entirely; Sarsamon slipped his leash and positioned himself as Emperor in truth. So the Church was left with a mandate to avoid assuming direct control over society, but also organized in such a way as to surreptitiously do so, and without the mechanism for which that organization was designed. Which has led to a push and pull within the Church, and between it and the cults, ever since.”

“This is real interesting and all,” Darius began.

“This is important.” Ami half-turned, placing herself in profile against the window, and several pairs of eyes shifted again. Including Tallie’s, which were rolled heavenward. “This is what you’ve blundered into; not some circumstantial thing that’s just popped up like your nonsense with those dwarves a few weeks ago, but a struggle that has been ongoing for a hundred years! I’m flabbergasted that you’re only just hearing about this. What do they teach you in that Guild?”

“Hey,” Ross protested. “We’re apprentices. None of us’ve been learning more’n a couple months.”

She snorted, managing to make even that musical. “As someone who is already acquainted with Ildrin Falaridjad, let me assure you she is a known partisan in this business, and has been for years. Basra Syrinx also has a reputation for being friendly toward the Church, even more than most Bishops, which makes it interesting that she’s siding against them now.”

“Basra never does anything without wanting something,” Schwartz murmured, stroking Meesie with his fingers. “Also, she really hates Ildrin…”

“The point is,” Ami said patiently, “those two are hardly the only people involved in this matter. Given a little time, I could get you a list of names of people who would almost certainly be involved, based on their known reputations.”

“That would help tremendously,” Jasmine said fervently.

Ami held up a hand. “Two important points. First of all, I assume you have more to go on than just Ildrin acting up? Because I have seen her using a stolen Izarite shatterstone to interrupt diplomatic proceedings by assaulting one of the participants. Just because she of all people is disregarding basic rules of decent conduct is not inherently newsworthy.”

“What’s a shatterstone?” Darius asked.

“An artifact kept in most Izarite temples for defense from attack,” Schwartz explains. “If you do any non-divine magic in its vicinity, it lets out a sort of pulse that neutralizes magic in the area and incapacitates all magic users except Izarite clerics. Well, briefly, anyway.”

“A typically Izarite notion of defense,” Jasmine said contemptuously. “Passive, indiscriminate, and easy to circumvent with a basic application of strategy.”

Ami cleared her throat loudly.

“Yes, right,” Schwartz said hastily. “Well, the thieves, here, did an operation to bust up some kind of extortion ring within the Sisterhood and the Collegium. I helped them get info from the inside…”

“You’re mixing up your crimes, Herschel,” Layla chided. “That was embezzlement, not extortion.”

“Yes, anyway,” he said irritably. “It’s in at least two cults and probably more, which was why we were uncertain about involving the Guild. Also, someone was scrying on my rooms, which means I specifically am being watched, and to get through the Emerald College’s wards they are either a very powerful mage or also a Salyrite. Probably both.”

“Ah,” Ami said, turning to face them again and nodding once. “Well, that brings me to my second point: You should have gone to the Guild immediately.”

“Once again,” Layla began.

“As I told you,” Ami said, “this is a new, more aggressive outgrowth from an existing matter. It’s about Church loyalists—people within the cults who believe strongly in the Universal Church, sometimes even more so than their own cults, at least according to rumor. Activity of that kind has increased markedly in the last ten years, though Archpope Justinian is always above anything tying him directly to such…antics. But we are still talking about people choosing to side with centralized power, at the expense of other loyalties.” She loftily arched one eyebrow. “And you really think the Guild is in on this? I assure you, in the entire century such activity has been waxing and waning, no Eserite has ever been involved. Other cults have wiggle room for attachments, but such goes against the most fundamental teachings of Eserion. Honestly,” she added acerbically, “it is incredible that I should have to explain this to you, of all people.”

“It’s really impressive how I wanna slap her even while she’s helping us out a lot,” Tallie said thoughtfully.

“Yes, Ami is very gifted,” Schwartz said with a sigh.

The bard, fortunately, seemed amused by this observation. “I seem to recall from Herschel’s description that you lot had help from one Alan Vandro?”

“Ugh,” said Jasmine, Tallie, and Layla in unison.

“Yeah,” Ross grunted. “What do you know about Vandro?”

“Only his reputation,” Ami said, grinning, “which includes the ugh factor. But also that he is an Eserite purist of the kind that annoys even other Eserites. If anyone could be relied upon not only to have no involvement in a Church loyalist campaign, but to do everything in his power to thwart one, it would be he.”

Jasmine drew in a long breath through her teeth. “Well…there’s that, I suppose. Personally, I think we’re better off dealing with the Guild directly, if it’s safe…”

“What about Glory?” Layla said. “Tamisin Sharvineh?”

Ami shrugged. “She, of course, is much more connected with circles of power, but again, still Eserite. Honestly, she is likely to more know about the ins and outs of this group if they are indeed beginning to organize something, as you imply.”

“They are definitely organizing something,” Jasmine said, frowning heavily. “I’d been thinking this was just a few opportunistic individuals, but if it’s instead a suddenly more orderly pattern of behavior by a long-standing group… Them skimming resources and money from two cults suddenly takes on a whole different aspect. That’s not just crime, it’s an insurgency strategy.”

“And further reason to turn to the Guild,” Ami added, again folding her arms. “The Thieves’ Guild’s intolerance for other people committing crime, especially organized crime, has always played a part in preventing rebel movements from funding themselves. It’s one of the reasons governments are so tolerant of Eserite activities.”

“So,” Darius said slowly, “if these people are suddenly ramping up their activities… They’re not just stealing money or liking the Church anymore. They’re planning to do something.”

“And,” Layla added, “the reaction to us suggests we came closer than we realized to finding out something they don’t want known.”

“Thank you very much, Ami,” Jasmine said. “You’ve helped us tremendously already.”

“You mean, by making you think about what you already knew?” Amy swept a grandiose bow. “A bard’s work is never done.”


Upon her return to the Rock, the royal family’s seneschal directed Teal to a chamber deep in the fortress, which he called an armory. There were, indeed, weapons along the walls, but it currently seemed to be serving as a combination laboratory and gathering place. Several more people were present than she’d expected to find when asking where her classmates were, one of them in the middle of a story when she entered.

“—two harpoon launchers, but mine were attached to treated cables that wouldn’t burn or cut under anything less than dragonfire or a mag cannon, and the heads discharged a spray of modified yggdryl sap which basically encased them and whatever they struck in a layer of rock. The release mechanism was in the launcher. So of course using ’em was expensive every time, but when I hooked another ship, they damn well stayed hooked, until I decided they could go again. The wonders of modern alchemy!”

Anjal Punaji was animatedly narrating, standing near an examining table on which were laid out a variety of arcane scrying tools along one side, while Fross flittered about over a bent metal arm that had clearly been taken from a Rust cultist. Ruda, Toby, Gabriel and Juniper were all standing nearby, listening to the pirate queen with varying degrees of interest.

“Told you,” Ruda grunted when her mother paused for breath. “Woman is fuckin’ obsessed with gadgets. You leave this thing in her sight and she’ll be trying to build her own cultist by nightfall.”

“So I’d let them herd me closer to the vortex, see?” Anjal continued, mostly directing herself to Gabriel, who was clearly the most wrapped up in her story. “So we snared her with both harpoons, and then dropped all sail, which basically made the Quarrel an anchor dragging the Sheng warship down with us. They immediately did everything they could to pull away, but with the weight of both ships and the vortex pulling at us, they had no chance. We stayed that way till we were both past the point of no return, then I released the cables and raised sail again.” She grinned savagely. “But my ship was outfitted with Imperial zeppelin thrusters below the water line. It was touchy for a bit there, but we pulled out of the vortex and left the Sheng to drown, and good bloody riddance to ’em.”

“Whoah, hold up,” Gabriel protested. “Zeppelin thrusters? Do those even work underwater?”

“I assure you, they do,” Anjal said with a wink.

“Cos I’m no sailor, but I’m pretty sure those things would shake a wooden ship to pieces.”

“Oh, that they would, which was precisely why mine was the only ship on the sea that had ’em. The Quarrel was a high elven caravel; toughest little girl I ever saw, and the wood healed itself after being damaged. You’re not wrong, she sprouted a dozen leaks after that abuse, but we bailed our asses off for the next day and a half and she gradually put herself right.” Anjal heaved a reminiscent sigh. “Gods, I miss that ship.”

Gabriel was frowning now. “I thought high elves were a myth.”

“Yeah, well, you’re better off. It’s for the best for everybody that they keep to themselves. They were real bloody curious what I was doing with one of their ships in the first place. By far the biggest pain in the ass I ever dealt with, and that’s including having half the Punaji privateers chasing me from Acarnia to Glassiere.”

“What is she doing here?” Teal demanded suddenly, glaring.

“Uh.” Juniper blinked. “She…lives here. This is kinda her house.”

“I don’t think she’s talkin’ about Mama,” Ruda said wryly.

“Oh. Right.”

Six other women were gathered on benches against the far wall, watching with wide eyes—including two elves, one of whom Teal recognized.

“Hi there,” Principia said diffidently. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Teal braced her feet, and emitted a low growl—a sound that clearly was not the produce of any human voicebox. Flickers of orange fire sparked across her eyes. All six women pressed themselves backward against the walls.

“Whoah, whoah, easy there, hon,” Ruda said soothingly, rushing to her side and laying a hand on Teal’s shoulder. “Short version is, she’s helping. This is Lieutenant Locke of the Third Silver Legion. They’re expected; after the Fourth got wiped out, High Commander Rouvad sent us some special forces units, much more discreetly. These are the first to arrive.”

“This woman, in the Silver Legions?” Teal said contemptuously. “And you believed that?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Ruda countered. When Teal turned a glare on her, she shrugged. “Think about it. The one thing we know she wants is access to Trissiny. This crazy bitch was willing to piss off all of us, not to mention the various world powers we’re connected to, plus fucking Tellwyrn, just to get a two-minute conversation with Shiny Boots. Her signing up with the Silver Legions after that is such an obvious next step I’m a little embarrassed it didn’t occur to me at the time. Besides,” she added, turning a wry look on Principia, “I’m no High Commander, but if I was crazy enough to let this walking sack of pickled assholes into my Legions, I’d definitely route her into the special forces. She’d make a shitty-ass soldier under any other circumstances.”

“She really does know you,” Merry said, nudging Prin with an elbow.

Principia sighed and stood up. “Well! Now that everybody’s here that’s coming I can say it: I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” Teal snapped.

“Well, I am,” the elf said quietly. “The fact is, I was thinking of nothing but myself. All of you were just things in my way, as far as I cared. I have no excuse. It was unpardonable asshole behavior on my part, and I truly am sorry. That doesn’t change anything, I know, but there it is.”

“That was less than two years ago,” Teal exclaimed. “And now she’s calling herself a Lieutenant? That’s not even believable!”

Suddenly, warm arms were wrapped around Teal from behind, and Juniper pulled her close, resting her chin on Teal’s shoulder.

“She’ll wake up,” the dryad murmured. “She will be fine, Teal. And she wouldn’t want you to be so angry, or so sad.”

“She’s got a story to explain that, too,” Anjal interjected. “And we checked with the local Avenist temple, which has been kept in the loop. This actually is Squad 391, and Locke is who she claims. They’re an interesting bunch, aren’t they?”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Farah said politely.

“Girl, I’m Punaji,” Anjal replied. “There are no Majesties here.”

Principia cleared her throat again. “Well. Now that we’re all assembled, I’ve got something more relevant to the mission to bring up. Unless I’m wrong, which I kind of hope I am, did I hear you refer to the Rust as the Infinite Order a few minutes ago?”

Ruda narrowed her eyes. “Our intelligence says that’s their own name for themselves. What of it?”

Principia ran a hand over her hair, letting out a long sigh. “Oy vey… All right. Have you guys had the chance to eavesdrop on any of their sermons?”

“A couple of times now,” Toby said, nodding. “It’s all mind over matter, self-empowerment humanist stuff.”

“Jibbering nonsense, is what it is,” Casey added disdainfully.

“I wish it was that simple,” Principia replied. “Okay, without going into excessive detail, let me just remind everyone that I was an adventuring thief for two hundred years, back when ‘adventure’ was a respectable career path and not a punchline. I have been places people should not go and seen shit that’s better left forgotten. Such as, specifically, a number of relics of the Elder Gods. Rather…instructive ones.”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about where this is heading,” Gabriel muttered.

“Infinite Order,” Principia said grimly, “was what they called themselves. The name of their organization, like how our gods are the Pantheon. And this stuff the Rust are spouting, this self-empowerment piffle… That was their religion.”

“Okay, hang on a fuckin’ second,” Ruda said, holding up a hand. “Let’s say for the sake of argument I believe you know this. Why would the Elder Gods need a religion? Wouldn’t they each have their own?”

“They weren’t gods like our Pantheon,” Principia explained. “They had a totally different relationship to their own power, and the people of this world. Our gods are each a god of something; the Elder Gods were just beings of incredible, nearly infinite power. Everything they did was calculated to protect that power, including the religion they preached and enforced. Like, the system of measurements we still use? That was a very old one which was long discredited by the time they arose. They used a system based on tens, each unit derived from some physical constant.”

“Like the dwarves use!” Gabriel said.

“Maybe the same one; it wouldn’t surprise me if the dwarves had dug up Elder God relics themselves. My point is, everything the Infinite Order did was designed to suppress people. They gave our ancestors food that barely nourished them, prohibited things like libraries and museums, insisted on a system of measurements that made any kind of science harder to do and mandated a religion based on nonsense and circular reasoning, all to inhibit people from rising to power the way they had.”

“So,” Toby said slowly, “this unprecedented cult with inexplicable powers…is actually some kind of direct continuation of the Elder Gods themselves.”

Gabriel let out a low whistle. “Oh, fuck, that’s bad.”

“It may not be as bad as that,” Principia cautioned. “The Elder Gods left all kinds of junk. Most of it’s been destroyed or locked away by now, but I suspect there’ll always be bits and bobs left for somebody to stumble across once in a while. Whoever leads the Rust may have just got his hands on some records and/or artifacts.”

“Sounds to me like we’d better be prepared for the worst, though,” Anjal said flatly. “Records and artifacts don’t wipe out Silver Legions.”

“Uh, yeah, about that,” Fross chimed, finally drifting away from the arm she’d been examining. “I would be more worried about whatever source of knowledge or power the Rust has being able to propagate itself somehow. Cos I’ve triple checked to be sure about this and right now I’m about ninety-five percent certain this hunk of metal is alive.”

 

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13 – 10

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“Athan’Khar?” Tallie exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

“It’s not something I’d joke about,” Schwartz said distractedly, frowning into the distance ahead as he had been since they’d found the others. “And…it’s not as if we went into the country. That’s pretty much suicide. Camping on the border and getting chased away by monsters was close enough, thank you.”

“There’s a great deal more to you than there appears, isn’t there, Herschel?” Layla said, giving him a warm smile. Darius shot her a look through narrowed eyes, then switched it to Schwartz, who didn’t notice. Meesie bounded onto Schwartz’s head and cheeped smugly.

“I think that’s true of everyone,” the witch muttered, still frowning in thought.

Fortune had been with them for once; Layla and Darius were together, in the main floor of the casino, which was quiet at that hour, and both dressed far more fashionably than was their custom these days. When asked about this, he had just glowered and she had looked smug. Ross, too, had been easily accessible, perched on the casino’s front steps playing a flute. It was hard to say what seemed more incongruous: the delicate little instrument in his beefy hands, or the sweet tone and precise notes he produced. Altogether it was easier to gather the group than Jasmine and Tallie had feared—especially so, since they didn’t even need to descend to the depths of the Guild proper, which would have necessitated leaving Schwartz behind.

Things were slowing down, however.

“Hey, man, step lively,” Darius reproved, falling back to nudge Schwartz with an elbow and earning a shrill scolding from Meesie, which he ignored. “We’re on a deadline, remember?”

“Oh, and what deadline is that, Darius?” Layla asked archly.

“The deadline that we don’t know who’s after us or what they can do,” he snapped. “For-fuckin’-give me if I’m a little nervous about this. Even the dwarves were just spies. This time it’s magic people. Real wizards, apparently, not hired enchanters. Plus whatever priests…and we still don’t know how deep this thing goes or into how many cults. Future reference,” he added, turning to address the rest of the group, “I have learned my lesson and am henceforth with Style. From now on, we stay the hell out of interfaith business.”

“Sorry,” Schwartz muttered a little belatedly, lengthening his stride. Meesie hopped from atop his head down to his shoulder, patting his cheek and squeaking in concern. Uncharacteristically, he appeared not to notice her, staring head with his forehead creased.

“Hey.” Suddenly, Ross came to a stop, reaching out to grasp Schwartz by the shoulder and holding him up as well. The others trailed to a halt, staring at Ross in puzzlement; Schwartz blinked, confused, and seemed to take a moment to focus his eyes on the burly apprentice. “You wanna tell us what bothers you so much about this Bishop we’re goin’ to see?”

“Ah.” Schwartz blinked, adjusted his glasses, and swallowed heavily. “Yes, well, um. Let’s, uh, have that discussion someplace a little less, you know…”

They were on a busy sidewalk in the district which housed the Imperial Casino; at this hour not long before noon, the traffic was plentiful. And as per the usual disinterest of city dwellers for other people’s business, what Eserite technique classified as the “don’t see” kind of invisibility, nobody was paying the gathering of somewhat scruffy young people any attention. Meesie garnered a few curious looks, but no one stopped, or even slowed.

“Sorry, didn’t express that right,” Ross grunted. “Wasn’t askin’ you to explain. I’m asking, Schwartz, if you want to tell us about it. Cos if you don’t, that’s also okay.”

Schwartz blinked twice. Meesie stood upright, placed on paw on his cheekbone, and nodded, squeaking insistently.

“I would sort of…rather not, actually,” Schwartz said at last. “It’s not that…”

“Don’t need to explain,” Ross said, nodding, then shifted his head to look at the others. “Kay, so, we’re not doin’ that. What other options we got?”

“Now, wait a second,” Darius exclaimed.

“We don’t have a lot in the way of options,” Tallie agreed, frowning. “Look, Schwartz, I dunno what’s up with you and Syrinx, but we’ve got your back—”

“HEY.” Everyone shut up immediately at Ross’s bark; he had a bard’s lungs and could project at startling volume. All around the street, people paused, turning to look at the group. Ross glanced sidelong at this, frowning in annoyance, then turned and curtly tugged Schwartz toward the nearest alley. The witch followed him, unprotesting, and the others trailed along behind after a moment.

A few yards in, sheltered from the sight of the street, Ross turned, and gently shook Schwartz by the grip he still had on his shoulder—for a given value of gently. The witch nearly lost his balance and Meesie chattered a stern reproof.

“This is our boy Schwartz,” Ross said firmly, glaring at the others. “Smartest guy we know, badass spellcaster, and doesn’t scare easy. We knew that before this Athan’Khar business came up, even. He saved all our butts on that ride outta the city. So when he’s spooked enough by something to be this nervous, that’s all we need to know. Guild or not, you gotta trust your crew.”

Darius frowned. “I don’t think—”

“Oh, you don’t think at all,” Layla scoffed. “Ross is entirely correct, and I for one am embarrassed to have to be reminded of it. Quite frankly, that woman gave me the creeps. Even while she was clearly helping us, on both occasions, something about her makes my hackles rise.”

“Schwartz,” Jasmine said quietly, “I’m not arguing or judging, here, just asking. Are you sure about this?”

“I can’t say how sure I am about anything that might happen,” Schwartz replied with more poise. He met her gaze evenly, though, and nodded. “I can tell you that it’s an informed opinion backed by experience when I say nothing good will result from involving Basra Syrinx. Even if she can help, she’ll use that to tie strings to us. And that is something I promise we’ll all regret.”

Jasmine nodded slowly. “Then…I’m on board with this decision. I haven’t seen what Schwartz apparently has, but even within Avenist circles, I’ve heard warnings about Syrinx.”

“I have no idea what you lot are going on about,” Darius said irritably, then held up a hand when both Tallie and Layla rounded on him. “But! I trust you guys. Ross is right, after all; if you can’t trust your crew, you’re fucked anyway. So, if Syrinx is out as a prospect, what’s that leave us?” He shrugged helplessly, looking around at them. “Cos it’s not like we don’t have friends. The whole reason none of us have got proper sponsors is we have so many ties to upper Guild members it makes people nervous. But that does us no fucking good when we have to wonder if they’re involved in whatever horseshit is going on!”

“The original issue is we can find that out,” said Jasmine, “but it’ll take some time and room to maneuver. We need a secure space from which to operate, at least briefly, and protection by someone who can offer it would be nice.”

“Glory’d be perfect if we could trust her,” Ross added. “Gotta say I can’t see her bein’ in on this.”

“I think likely she is not,” Layla agreed, frowning and chewing her bottom lip in thought. “Rasha certainly wouldn’t be. But Glory hears bits of everything worthwhile happening in the city; don’t forget we got some of our initial tips on this from Rasha, who heard rumors via Glory’s connections. There are so many reasons someone might scheme from within the cults, not all of them bad. If she thought they had the right idea and didn’t yet know they were trying to falsely imprison us…”

“By the same token,” Tallie added dryly, “let me be the first to say I don’t think we should involve Webs in this. And I’m not just saying that because he stares at my chest and Layla’s butt.”

“He what?!” Layla and Darius chorused in matching outrage.

“I’ve noticed that too,” Jasmine said, scowling. “But strategically, I think you’re right. My feeling is with a little information we can clear Glory of involvement in this and be able to ask her for help. I have a very strong feeling, though, that if we go looking into Webs’s doings, we’re likely to find him knee-deep in this business. We know he’s suspicious of Tricks and the Guild’s current leadership. Who better to be involved in a conspiracy to suborn the cults from within?”

“What about that woman with the absurd suit?” Schwartz suggested. “I realize we didn’t part on the best of terms, but the way you describe it, she’s sort of ancillary to the Guild. If you’re worried the Guild is compromised…”

“Ironeye?” Tallie’s eyes widened, and she began waving her hands in front of herself. “Nonononono.”

“Uh, yeah, let’s call that Plan D,” Darius said with a wince. “She didn’t explicitly say our asses were hers if we ever showed ’em in Glass Alley again, but…”

“That was the subtext,” Ross said, nodding. “Wasn’t subtle about it, either.”

“It occurs to me our method of making friends seems to involve making enemies in equal measure.” Jasmine sighed, running a hand over her hair. “Well, that pretty much just leaves…Pick.”

Tallie snorted. “Credit where it’s due, he’s had our back ever since we helped rescue him from the dwarves, but he’s got nothing to offer but small-time stuff. Pick’s not only the biggest asshole I know, he’s also not the sharpest tool in the shed. I don’t see anything worthwhile coming of involving him.”

“There’s Grip,” Darius said.

Everyone turned to stare at him.

“Yeah, I know,” he muttered, and heaved a heavy sigh.

“Oh!” Tallie turned to Jasmine. “I realize you’ve got a complicated relationship with her, Jas, but let’s not forget Sergeant Locke and her squad. They came through for us once.”

“Uh, no good, I’m afraid,” Schwartz chimed, grimacing. “I got a note from Principia last night to…well, stay out of trouble. She and her squad are out of the city on some classified maneuver or other.”

“They’re trusting Locke with classified operations?” Jasmine exclaimed, her eyebrows shooting upward. The next moment, they fell into a frown. “Wait, why is she worried about you getting into trouble?”

“Syrinx,” he said sullenly.

“Oh. Right.”

“What about you, man?” Darius asked, turning to Schwartz. “I know the Collegium seems to be compromised, but do you have any particular friends in there who you trust?”

“Some,” Schwartz said with a pensive frown, while Meesie chittered softly as if debating possibilities with herself. “Sister Leraine is all the way in Viridill, though… I have worked with Bishop Throale enough that I think he would listen to me, but we aren’t close.”

“Bishops, hm,” Ross grunted. “If we’re sure Syrinx isn’t in on this, maybe that’s a sign our cults’ Bishops could be trusted?”

“I would not assume that based just on rank,” Jasmine said, shaking her head. “Darling and Throale would both be excellent prospects for any kind of conspiracy to recruit, whereas Syrinx is unstable and cruel enough that handling her might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. I’ve said before I don’t think High Commander Rouvad has her nearly as much in hand as she believes.”

“In short,” Layla said with open exasperation, “everyone we know either hates us or can’t be trusted in a pinch. I feel this is the sort of revelation which ought to prompt some soul-searching.”

“And would,” Tallie agreed gravely, “if any of us had souls. No offense, Schwartz. Ooh!” She suddenly straightened up, grinning, and pointed at him. “Now, stop me if I’m wrong, everything I know about fairy magic I learned from you an hour ago, but the way you were talking about divination… Can you get some answers for us about who can and can’t be trusted?”

“Hm.” He frowned deeply. “Hmmmmm.” Meesie sat upright on her haunches, twisting her head to peer up at him, in silence for once. “Wellll…”

“Is this how divination works?” Darius asked sardonically. “Are you doing it right now?” Layla struck him in the stomach with the back of her fist, which he pretended not to feel.

“The tricky thing is…well, it’s tricky,” he said slowly, folding an arm across his midsection to prop his other elbow on it and stroke his chin in deep thought. Meesie mimicked the pose on his shoulder, squeaking once in agreement. “Fae divination is as much about politics and interpersonal relations as magical technique. It comes through the agency of intelligent spirits, which all have their own personalities and agendas. Some points generally in common, though. They don’t like yes or no questions, as a rule.”

“Sounds like they just enjoy being difficult,” Layla observed, arching an eyebrow.

“That is…not incorrect,” Schwartz said with a sigh. “The more specific you try to be, the more vague the answers will be, as a rule of thumb. Humm…there are possibilities, though, workarounds. Connection is a powerful thing in witchcraft, as are emotional states. If we’re dealing with questions about people to whom we are already linked, and whether they mean us well or ill…” His eyes came back into focus, actually beginning to look a little eager. “You know, I think I might be able to work something up! I won’t promise anything terribly detailed, of course. There is always the risk when trying to maneuver around spirits’ recalcitrance that you will trigger a backlash. Do that the wrong way and a practitioner can seriously damage the relationships they have built with totem spirits and thus permanently impair their craft.”

“Well, let’s not do that,” Darius said. “You’re no good to us de-magicked.”

Layla hit him again.

“And,” he added, scowling at her, “obviously we care whether you get your magic screwed up. I was assuming that went without saying.”

“From Ross, it would,” Jasmine said pleasantly. “You need to clarify.”

“I hate you all.”

“No, ya don’t,” Tallie said, grinning and leaning an elbow on his shoulder.

“I think I can do this, though, yes,” Schwartz said in mounting excitement, ignoring their byplay. “I mean, as I said, I won’t swear to the results, but… Well, for a start, I believe we’re taking it as given that we trust Glory and just need some independent verification? Because if that’s the only level of certainty I have to shoot for… Yes, I’m almost positive I can do that!”

“If you can, that would give us a perfect starting point,” Jasmine said with a broad smile, catching some of his enthusiasm. “Glory is amazingly well-connected in the city, as we were discussing. With her help we may be able to find out everything else we need without having to trouble your spirits.”

“Oh, but…” Schwartz deflated abruptly. “What we’re talking about is not a simple, standard consultation. I could do one of those right here, in this alley, if you guys didn’t mind standing guard for half an hour or so. But this will need some rather more serious preparation… I will need both space and time, which means a spot we can consider safe. And without safe access to my rooms at the Collegium…”

“We’re right back to where we started,” Tallie said. “Well, fuck.”

Darius cleared his throat and raised a hand. “Okay, don’t everybody pile on me for this, but… To revisit an earlier topic, how off the table is Bishop Syrinx? Because she’s a dangerous hardass, she’s the only major player we know isn’t in with this conspiracy, and sure, maybe she’s a vicious asshole, but we’ve just spent the last ten minutes figuring out that describes pretty much everybody we could possibly turn to.”

Meesie began tugging at Schwartz’s earlobe, squeaking insistently. When he turned his head to look at her, she hopped to the very edge of his shoulder, stood up on her tiptoes, and struck a pose folding one tiny arm across her chest while brandishing the other in the air. She raised her head and let out a single long, shrill note.

“You trained your mouse to do opera?” Darius exclaimed, wincing and raising fingertips to his own ears. “Well, that’s the single most impressive thing I’ve ever seen that has no conceivable use. Also, please make it stop.”

“Oh!” Schwartz’s expression suddenly brightened, and he reached up to scratch between Meesie’s ears. “That’s right, I do know someone! Someone who can find information for us the slow way and provide a safe place for me to cast!”

“Well, why didn’t you suggest that first?” Tallie asked irritably.

Schwartz winced. “I, uh, didn’t think of it. And also there’s the fact that she is not going to like this. Any part of it.”


The Mermaid’s Tail was as close to “upscale” as establishments on the wharves of Puna Dara came. There was often music, broken furniture was repaired or replaced quickly, the food and drinks were both good, the serving girls were pretty, and the consequences for pawing at them included broken bones and an unplanned swim. The place was never truly quiet; even just before the lunch hour, it was busy enough to be difficult to find a table for six people.

For that reason, Squad 391 had chosen not to stay there after meeting up.

In appearance they had mostly reverted to type rather than attempting an actual disguise, with the possible exceptions of Principia and Nandi. Neither personally favored the traditional elvish attire they now wore, but it served as the best deflectors of attention. Elves were rare in Puna Dara, and had a less savage reputation than in the Imperial provinces, so they were met with less suspicion and hostility, but just as much curiosity; wearing obviously human clothes would have made them more curious to behold, which they preferred to avoid.

Of the others, Casey was in a simple skirt and blouse suitable for her prairie childhood. Ephanie and Merry both wore sturdy boots, trousers and shirts that didn’t look too out of place on the wharves, reflecting in one case a pragmatic Avenist upbringing and in the other both a working-class background and frontier adventurer sensibilities. Farah, meanwhile, was regretting her choice of a stiff, high-collared conservative dress. Such garments much better suited the climate of Tiraas than Puna Dara, as the sweat dampening her temples affirmed.

“Okay, first thing we’ve gotta do is get you into more suitable clothes, Farah,” Principia said, grinning but not without sympathy.

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Farah panted, vigorously fanning herself with a Sheng style hand fan for which she had paid far too much from a vendor. “Sorry, Sar—Lieu—Prin. I didn’t think well enough ahead.”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Merry said easily. “If any of us had thought far enough ahead, we’d have warned you.”

“Oh, indeed, this one has no business criticizing anybody’s choices in wardrobe,” Principia said merrily.

They were walking along the waterfront between piers; Merry actually stumbled half a step, and shot the elf a warning look. “Locke.”

“You should have seen the costume I first met her in!” Principia continued, grinning from ear to ear. “It was like she’d gone to the most overpriced leatherworker she could find and asked for the most stereotypical adventurer gear they had—”

“Locke, so help me—”

“—but instead of ‘adventurer’ the guy thought she said ‘prostitute,’ so she had to improvise places to keep two dozen unnecessary throwing knives—”

“Bitch, I will not hesitate to shove your ass into the harbor!”

“I’m guessing you’ve never tried to shove an elf anywhere, Tazlith,” Prin retorted, her grin truly insane in proportion now.

“And let’s refrain from the gendered insults, please,” Ephanie said wearily.

Merry rounded on her. “Oy, don’t you start spouting off about regs while we’re out here—”

“Correct, they’re not as applicable while we’re being discreet, and speaking of which keep your voice down,” Ephanie retorted bitingly. “Consider that a personal request. Keep it up and first I’ll lecture you about basic feminist philosophy, which I know you’ve already heard, and then throw you in the harbor.”

“Wait, Tazlith?” Farah said, still fanning herself but now cocking her head quizzically. “As in…arrow? I can see how you’d get that from the elvish glyphs but I was sure it was pronounced ‘tasleef.’”

Merry ground the heels of both her hands into her eye sockets. “AAAUUGH!”

“Yeah, that’s a great way to avoid notice,” Casey muttered.

“Take it easy,” Principia said lightly. “I’m watching and listening, as is Nandi. Nobody’s paying us any mind.”

The area was, indeed, busy to the point of boisterousness. Puna Dara being a major port city, the amount of activity that went on around the docks near midday bordered on deafening. Even Merry’s outburst hadn’t garnered them so much as a glance; there was no shortage of shouting resounding from all sides, most of it a lot more meaningful. The group passed in front of a long warehouse which seemed to be built partially over the harbor, briefly cutting off their view of the sea.

“Speaking of which, to business,” Nandi said softly enough that the non-elves had to cluster closer to her to hear. The group’s pace slowed somewhat. “We haven’t been idle while waiting for you, but we have learned little, I’m afraid.”

“First and most important, I think, is that there are limits to what they can watch, or at least watch for,” Principia agreed, nodding. “You four made it here unimpeded. They aren’t omniscient. None of the other Legion groups have made it here yet; we’ve checked at the temple of Avei. They’re expecting the group of healers tomorrow, and that will be the next test of the Rust’s capabilities and inclinations. We know they can hit an entire Silver Legion; the question is whether they’ll find a contingent of Avenist medical staff a threat.”

“A grim thing to contemplate,” Ephanie said gravely.

Principia nodded. “As for the other cults… Local gossip places two Huntsmen in the Rock. That’s the fortress there in the harbor which houses the Punaji government; apparently they’re guests of Blackbeard himself.”

“Two?” Merry said disdainfully. “That’s helpful.”

“It is helpful,” Ephanie replied. “Two is not nothing, and Huntsmen are not Legionnaires. Without the backing of a lodge master or official like Bishop Varanus, it can be difficult to mobilize them, especially into a city.”

“Haven’t had time to check up on the other cults yet,” Principia went on quietly. “There’s a Vidian temple, of course, and an Omnist one, but…well, those are Vidians and Omnists. There’s a limit to how useful they’re likely to be. No word from any delegations from other faiths; it’s going to be interesting trying to track them down if they’re all trickling in from various directions the way we did.”

“What about the local Thieves’ Guild?” Casey asked. “If anything, I’d think Eserites would be the most helpful.”

“That was going to be my next stop after we linked up with you lot,” Principia agreed. “They’ll be instrumental in keeping us in touch with the word on the street. But…let me just moderate your expectations before they soar too high. The Guild in Puna Dara is… Well, to be quite frank, it’s basically the Eserite rest home.”

“What?” Merry exclaimed after a baffled pause.

Principia sighed. “Eserites are pretty much redundant in Punaji cities; the whole culture here shares their values.”

“I would think that’d make them more likely to set up shop,” Merry muttered.

“For other cults, maybe, but not the way Eserites think,” Casey replied. “They like to slink around in shadows and challenge corrupt centers of power. In a whole society that believes the way they do, the first part of that is unnecessary and the second part would have a hard time taking hold.”

“Exactly.” Principia glanced back at her and nodded. “So basically, the Guild here is half a dozen retirees who find the local climate good for their bones, and a couple of apprentices, mostly their kids and grandkids, who can’t wait for an opportunity to bugger off to someplace like Tiraas or Shengdu.”

“Fuck a duck,” Merry muttered.

“It’s not so bad,” Principia said cheerfully. “Without—”

She came to an abrupt stop, prompting the rest of the group to do likewise; a young Punaji woman in a broad-brimmed hat with a lot more feathers than seemed usual had suddenly whipped around the corner ahead to block their path, one hand resting suggestively on the bejeweled hilt of the rapier which hung at her belt. The girl, who was a head shorter than any of them, tilted her head back to study Principia’s face closely.

“Yuuuuup,” she drawled, “thought so. I like the hair. Blonde looks better on you.”

“Excuse me,” Principia said politely, “I think you may have me mistaken for someone else.”

“Ah, yes, of course, right.” The girl grinned. “Because elves all look alike and humans have such poor eyesight. Fross, identity confirmed.”

“Okay!” A silver streak of light zipped out from behind the warehouse, pausing right in front of them. “Hi! Sorry about this!”

“Wh—”

That was as far as Prin got before a blast of gale force wind sent the rest of the squad bowling over and a wall of sheer kinetic energy slammed her against the front of the warehouse. Four lightning-swift bursts of magic from the pixie encased her hands and feet, neatly pinning her against the brickwork.

The wind had been almost surgically precise; the human girl hadn’t lost a single feather from her hat. She now lazily dragged her rapier from its sheath and pressed the tip against Principia’s throat.

“So! If it isn’t the great Principia Locke. What the fuck are you doin’ in my city, you smirking little ferret?”

“STAND DOWN!” Prin roared. “No weapons! Don’t even think about it!”

“I beg your goddamn fucking pardon?” the Punaji girl said dangerously, pressing slightly with the sword. “According to what twisty-ass logic do you think you’re in a position to make demands?”

“Sorry,” Principia said earnestly, putting on a pleasant smile. “Wasn’t talking to you.”

Slowly, she turned to study the rest of the squad, all of whom were now on their feet and brandishing the long knives—and in Merry’s case, a cudgel—which they’d hidden among their clothes, visibly preparing to charge. At Principia’s order, they’d all stopped, but were glaring at the woman and her pixie companion. With the exception of Nandi, who wore a tiny smile.

Another figure strolled around the corner, this one in a green corduroy coat, and with a black-hilted elvish saber hanging from his belt. He stopped and surveyed the scene with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, Ruda, it’s your town and all, but unless you know something I don’t, these ladies don’t look awfully Rusty. There a particular reason we’re picking a fight with them?”

“Hn,” Ruda grunted, lowering her sword slightly. “No, I don’t actually suspect this one or her friends of being in with the Rust. But I don’t like coincidences with all this shit going on, and the sudden appearance of walking trouble this big makes me take notice. Bare minimum, we’re looking at a headache we do not fucking need. This is, as I just said, Principia fucking Locke, the elf with a penchant for breaking into dormitories and drugging our classmates.”

“Oh,” the young man said, turning an interested look on the imprisoned elf. “This is Trissiny’s mom?”

“Wait, you did what?” Farah exclaimed.

“D-did he just say Trissiny’s mom?” Merry screeched, at least an octave above her normal speaking register.

Principia heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, all righty, then, I guess I owe a few explanations. Would you mind awfully letting me down from here? My fingers are numb.”

Ruda grinned unpleasantly and tapped her lightly on the tip of her nose with the rapier’s point. “That, cupcake, depends on how good you explain. And how fast.”

 

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13 – 6

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The Rock looked almost squat from a distance, due to its subtly sloping walls. In shape, it resembled the bottom third of a pyramid, built from the dark volcanic stone of the craggy mountains surrounding Puna Dara. The closer they drew, however, the more its size revealed itself. The palatial fortress was easily the largest structure in the city. Square in shape and perched right on the shore with half its bulk extending into the harbor, it was set at a forty-five degree angle from the shoreline, one corner extending out past all but the longest of the piers.

“Right into the teeth of the storm,” Ruda said as they came into the shadow of the huge fortress. “Nobles in Tiraas, Sifan, Shengdu, everywhere, they like to build their palaces up on the hills, out of the way of…whatever might come. Not the Punaji. There are no weak leaders in Puna Dara; never have been, never will be. When a storm hits the city, it hits the center of government first.”

“Is that why the fortress is positioned that way?” Fross chimed curiously. “It looks aerodynamic! Like the storm winds channeled into the harbor by the shape of the mountains would part around that leading edge out there instead of hitting a big wall head-on.”

“Well, sure,” Ruda said, grinning. “Just ‘cos you lead from the front doesn’t mean you’ve gotta be stupid about it. Quite the opposite, takes strategy to live that way.”

“I am not much for cities as a rule,” Brother Ermon said mildly, “but in just a few days I’ve come to rather like the Punaji.”

Everyone glanced at him silently. That comment stifled the conversation for now, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the Huntsman in the least.

The Rock’s battlements bristled with mag cannons on its sides facing seaward, though no such weapons were aimed west at the city, clearly indicating from where Puna Dara’s leadership expected to find threats. Its city gates stood open, as well, but for all that the fortress was hardly undefended. Broad streets ran alongside it and nothing was permitted to be built against its walls, offering no structure which could provide a path to the ramparts. At its westernmost corner, a huge plaza spread out from the tower where the walls intersected, lined with stores and stalls and filled with a throng of people. The open gates of the Rock were symbolic of the relationship of the Punaji to their King; watchful soldiers, however, not only stood in the gates themselves, but were positioned all around the plaza, a column marching through even as the party from Last Rock drew close.

Ruda moved to the head of the group, but she didn’t even have to open her mouth; upon her arrival, the entire squad manning the gate saluted and stepped aside.

“Psst.” Teal nudged Juniper. “Take off the ring.”

The dryad frowned at her in confusion. “What? But I’m not allowed to be in cities without…”

“That’s Imperial cities. I don’t actually know what laws they have about dryads here, but in Punaji culture it’s an insult and a threat to enter someone’s home with your identity concealed.”

“Oh.” Juniper chewed her lower lip, and began toying with the silver ring she wore. “I guess…”

“It’s fine, Juniper, take it off,” Professor Tellwyrn said. “You’re Ruda’s guest, and Teal is right. Respect the tradition.”

“Okay, if you say so,” Juniper said with clear relief, and pulled the ring off.

Several of the soldiers twitched and turned toward her when her hair suddenly turned green.

“She’s with me,” Ruda barked. “At ease, boys.”

“Is it just me,” Gabriel said in a low voice, leaning closer to Toby, “or has she started swaggering more in the last five minutes?”

“She’s nervous,” Toby replied, just as softly. “Overcompensating.”

“About what?” Toby just shook his head.

They were at the back of the group, though still within Tellwyrn’s easy hearing. She didn’t so much as glance back at them. Teal, however, half-turned her head to give Gabriel a pointed look from the corner of her eye.

The thickness of the walls was incredible; passing through the gate was like entering a tunnel. Soldiers in baggy trousers, scarlet vests and turbans saluted Ruda, all seeming to recognize her on sight, once they emerged into the Rock’s enormous front courtyard. It seemed the fortress itself was built right into its seaward walls, leaving a triangular space inside the wedge which protruded into the city.

“Were we…expected?” Teal asked uncertainly as they stepped back into sunlight. There was a double line of troops extending toward the main fortress, forming a corridor. “I thought this was a sort of impromptu trip?”

“Fortunately for you, not everyone shares your apparent inability to plan ahead,” Tellwyrn replied. “I made arrangements. Yes, you’ll be expected, though they haven’t had much time to prepare. I’m rather impressed at this much fanfare.”

“Well, we all know how the Punaji think on their feet, eh?” Gabriel said cheerfully. “Right, Ruda?”

She didn’t answer. They all turned to look where she was silently staring: at a lone figure emerging from the Rock, heading toward them between the rows of soldiers. After a pause, Ruda suddenly broke into a run.

The woman approaching did likewise, grinning broadly, and they collided near the first rank of troops, spinning around in a bundle of exuberant laughter.

“Mama!”

That close, the comparison was striking. The Queen of Puna Dara was exactly as tall as her daughter—which was to say, not very. Where Ruda was both muscular and curvy almost to the point of plumpness, though, Anjal Punaji was slim as a blade, making her look diminutive in comparison. She wore a blue longcoat trimmed in gold, with neither a weapon nor a hat, revealing the azure gem glittering between her eyebrows and the threads of silver in her black hair.

Anjal pulled back, holding Ruda by the shoulders and grinning. Abruptly, though, her demeanor changed, expression switching to a scowl, and she shook her daughter roughly.

“What do you mean by this, turning up out of nowhere? We don’t pay tuition at that crazy school for you to go haring off whenever the mood takes you!”

“I heard the—”

“So we have some troubles in the city and you think you have to come rescue your poor, helpless old parents? How do you think we ever managed before you came along, Princess? Everyone has their duty and yours is to be studying in Last Rock!”

“I don’t run or hide from trouble when my people need help!” Ruda shouted back, matching her mother’s glare, now. They still stood close enough to hug, clasping each other by the arms.

“Oh, we know that, don’t we? After you decided only you could handle a damned hellgate when everyone was ordered to evacuate!”

“You want I should abandon my friends to danger? Is that how you raised me?”

“I raised you to know your duty and to do it, you—”

“Well, not that this isn’t entertaining as hell,” Tellwyrn said loudly, “but it sounds like you might want to pick it up in more comfortable surroundings?” She looked pointedly at the students and Ermon, all of whom were staring in clear fascination.

The Queen gave the Professor an appraising look, then released Ruda and nodded to her. “Ah, yes. Welcome to Puna Dara! I believe I recognize everyone from Zari’s letters. We received your belongings just a little while ago, everything is in your rooms.”

“Our…belongings?” Toby said warily.

“Ah, so this is as much a surprise to you as to us?” Anjal raised an eyebrow. “You work quickly, Professor. I had a suspicion this trip wasn’t of your planning—or at least, not at first.”

“Sometimes it’s necessary to adapt to the circumstances,” Tellwyrn replied. “While it is possible to effectively imprison my students in order to make them behave, rare is the situation in which that is the best choice. This time… They actually can help, and it makes for a very worthwhile exercise.” She turned a grim stare on the sophomores. “And afterward, we will discuss their respect for my rules at considerable length.”

“Well enough, I suppose,” said the Queen, finally giving the rest of them a smile. “Brother Ermon, thank you for finding our guests.”

“Fortuitous happenstance, your Majesty,” he demurred, bowing slightly. “I take no credit. I suspect none of them needed any guidance.”

“Come on, all of you, I’ll show you to the rooms we’ve prepared,” Anjal continued, stepping toward the castle. “It’s no floating tower, but we take good care of our guests here.”

“I’m looking forward to it!” Juniper said brightly. “I know we’re not here to sight-see, but after everything Ruda’s told us it’s great to finally visit Puna Dara.”

Anjal had begun to lead them toward the fortress, but suddenly slammed to a halt. Slowly, she turned to face her daughter. “And who,” she demanded, both eyebrows rising sharply, “is Ruda?”

The princess heaved a sigh. “Mama…”

“When did this start? Never mind, don’t tell me. As soon as you were out of my sight, wasn’t it? You’re so embarrassed by where you come from you had to rename yourself?”

“Mama,” Ruda said in clear frustration.

Tellwyrn cleared her throat, stepping forward and patting the Queen on the shoulder. “I advise against taking it personally, Anjal. Kids leave home, they want to establish their own identity…take it from someone who knows, this is perfectly normal. I have a drow on the rolls right now who went so far with it her mother tried to call her home in disgrace. I assure you, Zaruda has been nothing but a credit to her upbringing.”

“Hmph.” Anjal fixed her daughter with another long look. “I can see we have a great many things to catch up on. Come along.”

She turned and headed off again. To either side, the lined soldiers stared straight ahead, earnestly pretending to have seen and heard nothing. Ruda sighed again, heavily, and pointed at Gabriel. “Not a fucking word, Arquin.”

“I?” he exclaimed, pressing a hand to his chest and adopting a look of shocked reproach. “Why, dearest classmate, what possible words could I speak that would besmirch your unimpeachable character? Except, I suppose, for possibly bringing up that time you fucking stabbed me.”

Ahead, Anjal stopped again, this time so quickly she actually skidded, and whirled to face them. “You what?!”


The stagecoach rumbled toward the gates of Puna Dara in darkness, though dawn had come long since. As they drew ever closer, the mountains rose higher all around, obscuring the sunrise in the east; now, they were actually in the ancient dwarven tunnel leading to the city itself. It was late enough in the morning for there to be traffic on the broad highway now passing under the mountains, despite the darkness. Their coach proceeded in the company of wagons, travelers both on foot and on horse, and several enchanted carriages, though they weren’t the preferred vehicle for long trips away from cities. Carriages reliable enough not to need repair on such journeys weren’t exactly new, but the public’s tastes hadn’t yet caught up with the state of modern enchantment.

“It would have been near here,” Nandi murmured in elvish. “Where the Fourth was struck down. Or back at the entrance to the tunnel.” Principia glanced at her, but made no comment.

They were on schedule to beat the rest of their squad by at least a day. She and Nandi had made it this far ahead by hopping the stagecoach; two elves materializing out of the wilderness and begging for a ride did not make a particularly outlandish sight, though without the benefit of Avenist armor, they’d been greeted with suspicion. Finally, after paying twice the normal carriage fare, they had been relegated to riding on top with the baggage, despite the fact that there was room in the coach itself. Neither were fazed by these insults; what mattered was that they were on the way, and did not resemble an official presence of the Sisterhood, both being garbed as plains elves. Principia had dyed her hair a more conventional blonde, and if any of the humans they met were familiar enough to recognize the shape of her ears, well, there were any number of reasons a wood elf might have become part of a plains tribe.

In the interest of avoiding notice, the human members of their squad were proceeding much more conventionally. Thanks to Principia’s connections in the Wizard’s Guild, they had been teleported as close as was feasible to Puna Dara, which in the case of herself and Nandi meant the highway not far outside it, but the humans had been sent to Desolation, the last stop on the Rail network. Bypassing even the Rails, the whole squad would probably be the first of the Silver Legionnaires sent by Rouvad to actually reach the city. Elves wandering out of the wilderness might be a typical sight, but four human women doing so would have drawn attention, so they had embarked from the usual carriage line. The squad was to rendezvous at the Mermaid’s Tail as soon as possible. For now, though, the elves were alone.

“This is oddly nostalgic,” Nandi said suddenly, pulling one of the arrows from her quiver and turning it over in her hands. It was authentic; the Sisterhood had surprising things in its armories. She carried a shortbow and arrows, Principia a tomahawk, and both hunting knives. “I honestly hadn’t expected to be dressed and armed like this again till…ever, really. It has been a very long time since I looked back at where I came from.”

Principia watched her face sidelong. The tunnels weren’t illuminated; some of the vehicles passing through them carried fairy lamps, but not their stagecoach. The dimness was no challenge to her eyes, though.

“I guess falling in love is one reason to leave home,” she said at last, also in elvish. “I wouldn’t know. Me, I just couldn’t stand anybody I was related to.”

Nandi smiled slightly, gazing ahead. The tunnel passed under most of a mountain, but they could both see the light in the distance, morning sun rising above the ocean. It would be a while yet before they drew close enough for the humans in their vehicle to make it out. “I didn’t find her until some time after I went wandering, actually. Odd as the idea may seem to you, we may not be so different. I really didn’t fit in among my tribe, either.”

Principia kept her face neutral. Since their early conversations when Nandi had been serving as interim Bishop, the other elf hadn’t seen fit to share anything about her past, and Prin had not inquired. If there was one thing she respected, it was the need to leave ancient history in the dust where it belonged. Still, the fact that Nandi had brought this up, seemingly out of nowhere, said she wanted to discuss it. And Nandi Shahai had never done anything without a reason.

“Not much of a traditionalist?” she asked after a short silence.

“Traditions exist for a reason,” Nandi said quietly, still gazing ahead. “Not necessarily a good reason, but not necessarily a bad one. It’s not that I’m rebellious…at least, not more than I could help. The Elders of my tribe simply found it frustrating that I only approached women as lovers.”

Principia blinked and straightened up. “Wait—they threw you out for that? I mean…I know plains tribes are more strict about some things, but where I’m from that would be an eccentricity, at worst. And where I’m from, Elders compete with each other to see who can be the most stuffy and hidebound.”

Nandi grinned, just faintly enough to show teeth. “Oh, no, I wasn’t chased out; leaving was entirely my own decision. Life is different in the Golden Sea than in the groves, Principia. I don’t begrudge the Elders their concern…exactly. A tribe’s quest for enough food is eternal, and life is dangerous. We would lose people more often than a forest tribe usually does, no matter what care we took. For those responsible for shepherding the tribe’s future… It is a matter of concern to the tribe if a healthy female, for any reason, will not produce children.” She shook her head. “Concern it all it was, not condemnation. But it never stopped. It quickly becomes exhausting and demoralizing, having well-intentioned people constantly try to fix you when you aren’t broken.”

“Hm.” Principia heaved a deep sigh and squirmed slightly, shuffling down to sit more comfortably among the bags and suitcases lashed to the roof. “Now there, I can relate.”

“I bet you can,” Nandi replied, her smile widening.

“No offense,” Principia said carefully, “but you’ve never struck me as eager to trade backstories before…”

“Oh, I’m not prying, don’t worry. It honestly didn’t cross my mind that you would care to talk about your own history.”

“Good, because I don’t,” she said wryly, “but that’s not that I meant. Is this an ‘eve before battle’ thing? Not to understate the danger, here, but I think if we were going to be preemptively struck dead, it would have happened before now. It seems to me we’ve made it in, knock wood.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Nandi murmured. “I don’t know. Nostalgia, as I said… And having no one for company but another elf, which is a very unaccustomed situation for me. I haven’t made an effort to interact with my own kind in the last five centuries, nor to spend much time apart from the Sisterhood. We have elves, of course, gnomes, dwarves…everything but drow. It is mostly a human organization, though. This is just…I don’t know.”

“Now, that’s not terribly reassuring. I’ve grown to thinking of you as the most self-possessed, even-tempered person in my squad.”

Nandi cracked another grin. “Don’t worry, I am not about to become hysterical. Perhaps I’m just feeling more comfortable with you, is all. One downside to one’s entire social circle being so short-lived: after five hundred years, one grows hesitant to make close friends. Maybe I’d just like to have someone with whom to talk about these things.” She shifted to give Principia an amused look. “You don’t exactly project an aura of reliability or trustworthiness, Locke, but after all these months I feel I do have a sense of your virtues and flaws. And you are a good friend.”

“Well,” Principia said airily, “thank you for not having this discussion in front of the squad.” Nandi laughed obligingly. The silence which followed was comfortable, and lasted until they emerged into the tropical warmth of the city.


She stood at the end of the pier, shading her eyes with a hand. Even so, staring more or less at the sunrise was more than she could handle, and after only a moment she had to turn away, grimacing.

“You’re closer,” buzzed the voice in her ear. “Still not enough that I can get anything directly from the facility from your position, though I can tell it’s a good two hundred meters below your level, as well as almost five hundred meters east by southeast. Can you get closer?”

“Walker, if I get any closer I’ll be swimming,” Milanda said quietly, touching her earpiece. No ships were currently docked nearby, and she had the area mostly to herself, but still, it was generally better not to be seen chattering with oneself in public.

“Hm… So it’s underwater, then, not just underground.”

“Is it possible the whole thing’s just flooded?” she asked.

“Very unlikely. The Fabrication Plant’s facilities could pump out water and secure itself with force fields in a crisis, but frankly, the physical material from which it is made…”

“Mithril, like the spaceport,” Milanda sighed, turning again to peer out at the harbor. She knew, approximately, what a meter was, but didn’t have an intuitive sense of how far that would be in feet or miles. Broadly speaking, though, it would be somewhere in the middle of the harbor.

“Besides,” Walker continued, “if your description of the Rust cultists is accurate, they did not acquire that technology from any contemporary source. Somehow, there is an access to the facility, and they either control it or know where it is.”

“Well, that’s almost a relief,” Milanda murmured, turning and heading back toward Puna Dara. “I wasn’t looking forward to chartering a boat.”

“I doubt very much you could make significant progress that way.”

“Exactly. But if it comes to getting my hands on this cult and getting answers from them?” The Left Hand of the Emperor indulged herself in a smug smile. “That, I am pretty confident I can do.”

 

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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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“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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