Tag Archives: Princess Yasmeen

14 – 6

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“As promised.”

Yasmeen handed her the object, a shaft of metal no longer than Trissiny’s index finger. She accepted it almost gingerly, immediately holding it up to the intermittent light passing through the windows of the carriage. If the vehicle had interior fairy lamps, they were dormant, leaving only the shifting glow of the city to illuminate them. In a way, that helped prove the composition of the key fragment. Under full sunlight, the blade of Ruda’s sword might pass for steel, but in dimmer and especially moving light, it caught and refracted illumination in a way that both emphasized its paler color and made it almost resemble a jewel. This piece had the same quality. She lightly probed at its indentations with a fingertip; they matched the illustration in the book. Had she stumbled upon this thing without context, Trissiny doubted she would have interpreted its shape as part of a key, but knowing the fact made the arrangement obvious.

“I had the royal jeweler extract it from its setting,” Yasmeen continued while she studied Gretchen’s Dowry—or what was left of it. “I honestly thought the poor man was going to burst into tears.”

“I hope this won’t get you into trouble with your mother,” Trissiny murmured.

“Oh, nonsense, you don’t think I’m keeping this from her, do you?” Yasmeen snorted in a distinctly un-royal manner, and Trissiny had the sudden thought that between her and Ruda she had no evidence that the snooty stereotype of princesses actually existed outside of books. “Believe me, the Sultana of Calderaas is always pleased to assist the Hand of Avei in a quest, and while tonight’s main event was my idea, I wouldn’t dare set something like that into motion without Mother’s approval. She regrets not being able to present her compliments in person, but House Aldarasi’s involvement in all of this must remain a secret, or there’ll be real trouble from the Houses represented in that party you just crashed. Speaking of which…”

“I’m sorry, what?” Trissiny glanced up at her. “Who are you? How’d you get in this carriage?”

“The Sultanate appreciates your discretion,” Yasmeen said primly.

“In seriousness, though, does your mother know that you came to supervise this personally?”

“Ah, well.” The princess turned to face forward, folding her hands demurely in her lap, but ruined the effect by giving Trissiny a sidelong look accompanied by a sly little smile. “Mother can’t be expected to know everything. Ruling a country is complicated business, after all.”

“Yeah, I had a feeling.”

The princess had arranged two carriages with drivers; Trissiny did not quite follow her assertion that this would be more discreet than piling everyone into a larger, more luxurious model, but had been too distracted by her thoughts to make an issue of it.

“You seem unhappy.”

She glanced up to find Yasmeen looking at her now, her expression open and even. Trissiny closed her fist around the fragment of mithril; she hadn’t handled it long, but it didn’t seem to have picked up any heat from her hand.

“I understand the necessity of what happened back there, or I wouldn’t have agreed to participate. But I think something would have to be very wrong with me if I came away feeling good about it. I just beat and tormented a woman who was no physical threat to me, at all. Do you really think Lady Araadia deserved that treatment?”

“Wrong question,” Yasmeen murmured in a pensive tone which took any rebuke out of the statement. “Whether she did or not, summarily assaulting someone isn’t justice. If I know my Avenists, that’s the thing that sits most poorly with you.”

“Good insight.”

The princess nodded. “No, frankly, I don’t think she did. Irina Araadia is a splendidly useless creature as only a noble can be, but she wasn’t by a wide margin the most corrupt person even in that room. While her little museum scheme is surely one of the more asinine manifestations of the problems in Calderaas, it certainly was not among the most abusive. The point was to remind an entire stratum of society that there are limits, and beyond them, consequences. Yours was merely the ugly part; Toby’s role was equally important, and there will come more maneuvering by my mother and the cults in the days ahead to encourage the Houses to act rightly, using more…positive methods. A jolt of fear to shake their arrogance is but one tactic in a larger strategy.” She shifted her head to gaze aimlessly out the window at the passing city scenery. “In that, Irina was a sacrificial lamb. The greater good always leaves victims, by definition. Otherwise it would just be the good.”

“You sound almost Eserite,” Trissiny said with a sigh of her own. “I went to the Guild to learn how to plot my way around confrontation, the way the Wreath has done to me a few times. What they mostly taught me was how to be creatively cruel and terrorize people into compliance.”

“Good,” Yasmeen said firmly. “The more you can frighten someone into obeying, the less you’ll have to hurt them.”

“You don’t find that attitude just a little horrifying?”

“Yes, but it’s the basis of all criminal justice. Almost every aspect of rulership is a little horrifying, that’s just how societies work. Someone has to do some brutal jobs so that the majority of people can go about their lives in peace. You are, unfortunately, one of those specialists. As long as you do your job only when it’s needed and don’t try to run a whole society that way, all will be well. Let me ask you this, Trissiny.” Yasmeen shifted toward her almost fully on the seat, folding one of her legs across it between them. “How familiar are you with the history of paladins?”

Trissiny opened her mouth to answer, then hesitated. “Well. That was a major emphasis of my early education, but not so long ago an Eserite courtesan of all people pointed out a few massive blind spots in it. What did you have in mind, specifically?”

“I had a feeling,” Yasmeen said, nodding. “We have a bit of the same issue here. With all the Avenist influence, the history most people learn is just a tad romanticized—and the Church pushing a narrative of a united Pantheon exacerbates it. At this point you have to go to the Veskers or Nemitites to learn how paladins historically related to each other. Which is to say, like strange cats, most of the time.”

“Really?” Trissiny’s eyebrows involuntarily shot upward. “All right, you got me. That I wasn’t taught. I mean, there have been scuffles between paladins in all the great adventure stories, but…”

“But they were presented as passing misunderstandings?” Yasmeen shook her head, smiling ruefully. “There’s a reason an episode like that happens in almost all the great epics. Hands of Avei and Sorash considered each other worse than demons. Hands of Omnu firmly disapproved of just about everything every other paladin did, and most of Toby’s predecessors did not share his reluctance to assert himself. Hands of Salyrene were only intermittently useful to the cause of protecting humanity; their goddess was just as interested in advancing knowledge through experimentation, and quite a few of her Hands got up to things that resulted in other paladins putting them down. Magnan the Enchanter took it to a new extreme, but he was treading a well-worn path. There is an entire theological school of thought, which has fallen out of the public eye only in the last century, that the whole purpose of gods calling paladins was to fight with each other without using their full power and thus devastating the world the way the Elder Gods did.”

“Why does everyone know more about the history of my lineage than I do?” Trissiny complained.

Yasmeen laughed, reaching over to squeeze her upper arm below the silver pauldron. “Oh, I assure you, everyone does not. Like I said, the Church has gone to great lengths to encourage the view you were taught; not everybody has access to royal archives and a fondness for old adventure sagas. But I wasn’t changing the subject, Trissiny. Remember that I didn’t just ask you to barge into that party and slap Irina around; I asked all three of you to intervene, and in specifically different ways. Toby to appeal to their better nature, you to impose order, Gabriel to project chilling eldritch menace. You see the hierarchy, there?”

“Velvet mentioned the same thing,” Trissiny acknowledged. “Toby’s part, anyway. Maybe some of those people will be more receptive next time an Omnist politely asks them to consider others.”

“Oh, I guarantee they will,” Yasmeen assured her. “And not just because they don’t want to meet your fist, or even because they don’t want to find out what else that scythe can do. House Araadia is going to take a long time to recover from this setback, but every other House represented at tonight’s gala is, I promise you, already planning how to take advantage of this. Most will reach out to the Sisterhood directly; I expect your Silver Missions will find themselves most generously funded in the days to come. If you stay in one place and make yourself accessible, aristocrats will begin trying to court you—in some cases, quite literally.”

“What kind of person flirts with their own natural predators?” Trissiny demanded in exasperation.

“Nobles,” Yasmeen answered immediately. “That’s what we do, Trissiny. It’s what we are. Nobles are predatory toward each other to a truly insane degree; we expect nothing less, from anyone. Nobody takes it personally. Well, Irina will after the way you lit into her, but the rest? You didn’t damage them directly, so the question is not how they will stop you, but how they can use you. That is why it was so important to present yourself as a force of nature beyond their control, not a rival for power. Otherwise, anything you did to any of them would have been business as usual.”

Trissiny could find no immediate answer for that, and Yasmeen heaved a deep sigh, her gaze growing unfocused.

“That’s the thing, you see. The best thing that ever happened to me was getting out of my palace, going to Last Rock and spending time with peasants, oddballs, and people from all walks of life. The most important thing I learned from interacting with them is that they all want the same things I do. Growing up rich and in control, it’s so easy to assume that poor people are…lesser. Lazy, selfish, somehow to blame for their situation. But people are just people. And even at their most venal, the basic drives that motivate them ensure that most people, most of the time, do the right thing. People want to contribute, to belong, to feel and to be valuable, to be part of something greater than themselves. No end of trouble results from people misunderstanding or disagreeing on what is the right thing to do, but in the end? We all want what’s best, as best we understand it.”

Slowly, she shifted back to face forward, still perched in that awkward way half-on the seat. Her gaze had become distant; Trissiny wasn’t sure whether Yasmeen was still talking to her, or arguing with herself.

“The two exceptions are despair, and power. People who are so ground down that they have no hope stop bothering with anything that could give meaning to their lives. And people who have power…” Her whole expression tightened unhappily. “Power distorts the mind like nothing else. It becomes the end and the means, the only thing you think about or care about. Most people will do right because with a modicum of intelligence, self-interest is at least somewhat altruistic. The powerful only do right when they are afraid to do otherwise. And powerful people are the leading cause of populations falling into despair. So, yes.” She turned back to face Trissiny, her eyes coming back into focus and glinting in the dimness. “You’d better believe I am comfortable unleashing whatever monster I can catch against the powerful. That’s what constitutes working with them.”

“And then,” Trissiny said quietly, “there’s us, who can do a thing like we just did and then flitter off into the night without consequence. What does that say about us?”

Yasmeen expelled a soft breath that might have been a sigh, though she smiled thinly at the same time. “It says we are walking a very narrow path, and had best watch where we step.”

“You are a puzzle,” Trissiny said frankly. “You seem downright happy-go-lucky most of the time. But the way you talk about the responsibilities of your position, you make it sound so grim. Which one is the act?”

“Oh, Trissiny.” Yasmeen eased closer and placed an elbow on the back of the seat, to lean her cheek into her hand and give Trissiny a fondly chiding look. “Any Vidian can tell you that the secret to acting is not to act, but to believe.”

“That’s a deflection if I ever heard one.”

“Not at all, it’s an explanation.” Casually, she reached out to brush back a blonde lock which had come loose from Trissiny’s braid, and only her practice with the Guild on not giving away every little thought prevented her from stiffening up. Surely the princess didn’t… “Life is grim, if it’s nothing but responsibility. Taking time for oneself can feel like selfishness, to the conscientious person, but in truth a little maintenance for the mind and spirit is necessary.”

“Now it sounds like you’re describing prayer. Or exercise.”

“Both good approaches,” Yasmeen agreed readily. “It depends on the individual. It’s an absolute necessity to find moments of joy, whatever form they may take for you.” Idly, she shifted her hand again, lightly brushing the back of her fingers along Trissiny’s cheekbone, while very slowly but inexorably leaning closer. “We serve no one by falling into grim despair, my dear. We must take whatever pleasure we can from life. With whoever will share it, for however long the opportunity lasts. After all…who can say what might happen tomorrow?”

Well, this explained the separate carraiges, anyway.

Carefully, Trissiny eased backward, away from those caressing fingers. “I don’t get a lot of opportunities to…share pleasure. It’s probably the armor. Only women ever seem to approach me, and I have never been even slightly attracted to my own sex.”

Yasmeen stopped, her eyes widening in open surprise. “…really? But you’re the actual Hand of Avei! Didn’t you grow up in Viridill?”

“Ooh, darling, yes,” Trissiny said, utterly deadpan. “Stereotype me. Harder, please.”

The princess stared for a shocked moment, and then burst into laughter so hard she almost doubled over. Somehow, though, she turned the movement into gracefully retreating back to her side of the seat.

“All right, point vividly made,” Yasmeen gasped once she could, brushing a tear out of her lashes. “Well! My loss, then. Can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“Nothing will happen if you don’t try,” Trissiny agreed, smiling back. With the awkwardness defused, Yasmeen’s mirth was quite infectious.

“Stay reckless, Trissiny.” Just like that, though, the laughter faded from the princess’s countenance. “As long as you can be hurt, as long as you’re not too comfortable, not insulated from the consequences of your actions, you’re not turning into one of them.” She shifted to stare out at her city as they passed through it in the night. “I hope.”


“Man, what is it with you and that entire family?” Gabriel asked, shaking his head. “You’re like Aldarasi catnip.”

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Trissiny grumbled.

“You probably shouldn’t have,” he agreed. “I’m constitutionally incapable of letting it go, now.”

“Such a funny little thing, to be the focus of so much trouble,” Toby mused, studying the key fragment on his open palm. Strolling through the park under the morning sunlight as they were now, it looked like any miscellaneous piece of metal, albeit highly polished. “I’m really curious what it is this thing is supposed to unlock, when it’s restored.”

“It’ll turn out at the last minute that the real treasure was friendship or something,” Trissiny said, rolling her eyes. “Mark my words.”

“So…you’re still coming along, right?” Gabriel asked, nudging her with an elbow. “You’ve come this far with us!”

“I’m still considering that,” she hedged.

She was saved from having to go into any more detail by their arrival. The park seemed more crowded today than on her previous visit, but then, they weren’t creeping off into its most secluded corner this time. The three paladins had followed the footpath as directed to a small fountain in a little paved roundabout surrounded by benches and lamp posts, where their contacts were waiting. All were making a go at discretion, now that they’d thoroughly offended a swath of the city’s nobility. Trissiny was back in civilian clothes, her armor left in the Sultana’s palace for safekeeping—under the care of a particularly devout steward who Yasmeen said would doubtless consider the task the highlight of her life. Toby could’ve been any young Western man to someone who didn’t know his face, now that he was back in street clothes rather than formal robes, and Gabriel had taken the precaution of hiding his distinctive coat in a dimensional pocket. Ironically, he was sweating more without it; the weatherproof enchantments on traditional Punaji greatcoats were the reason sailors wore them from the equator to the arctic.

“Hey, guys!” Jeb called, waving exuberantly. “Ya made it!”

“Course they made it, ya galoot, what’d ya think was gonna happen,” Zeke said, but tipped his hat in greeting, grinning at them.

“Boys,” Trissiny said, nodding distractedly. Most of her attention was caught by the other person present.

“You wanna make a quick sketch?” Rainwood suggested dryly. “It’ll last longer.”

“Sorry,” she said automatically. “I’m just surprised by how well you clean up.”

In fact, he looked a lot like he had in her shamanic vision, though his hair was still much shorter. It was clean, now, brushed and even styled, giving him a rakish look. He also wore a green robe of supple dyed leather, ornately decorated with silver accents and beads, and carried a hardwood staff which was oiled and polished till it fairly glowed, topped with a chunk of rose quartz the size of her fist. Rather than a homeless layabout, he fully looked the part of an elvish shaman.

“A word in your ear, cousin, if I may?” Rainwood said more quietly, tilting his head pointedly to the side. Trissiny glanced at the others; Toby gave her a smile and a nod, Gabriel already in conversation with the Jenkinses.

She and Rainwood stepped a few feet away, not truly out of earshot but gaining a little privacy.

“So, have you decided on your next move?” the elf asked her.

“Not…entirely,” Trissiny admitted. “I’m leaning toward going back to the grove. This whole episode has left me feeling the need for more quiet contemplation.”

“Well…with apologies…I’m going to offer you some unsolicited advice,” he said seriously. “I know little enough of your life, Trissiny, but I’ve been around. A lot. So take it for whatever it may be worth. Go on the quest.”

She sighed. “Why?”

“If I’m not mistaken, you have an Avenist’s impatience with pursuits in which you see no practical benefit. Right?” He smiled lopsidedly.

“That’s not just an Avenist thing,” she pointed out, folding her arms. “I don’t know of anybody who enjoys wasting time with other people’s pointless nonsense.”

“Actually, lots of folks do. Anyone who would rather enjoy life than stress about meeting arbitrary goals, in fact. But that isn’t an argument I would pitch to you, of all people. Let me put it this way…” He shifted, half-turning to look out over the park, where people were walking, playing, and reading in the sunlight. “Vesk’s missions are never pointless, any more than a story is. To him, they’re one and the same. They are very literally character-building exercises. To put it in Avenist terms, training. He will break you down and build you back up, just like you would a new recruit into an army.”

“I’m not sure I trust what Vesk would want to build me into,” she retorted.

“Well, what are you?” Rainwood looked at her again, smiling faintly. “Because that’s what he’ll aim for. Think in storytelling terms, in archetypes. Are you the knight in shining armor? The thief? The orphan? The point of a hero’s journey is to bring you through the darkness and into the wisdom and greater power you earn on the other side. He’ll try to make you more of whatever it is you are.”

“That sounds…unpleasant,” she admitted.

He nodded slowly, turning his eyes back to the park. “Mm. Education is usually no fun, even when you seek it out and pay your tuition. Having it thrust upon you unsolicited is almost as enjoyable as surprise dental surgery. But the fact remains, it’s one of the best and most important things you can experience. I will say this, though, Trissiny: if you do decide to continue on, have a care. You’ve begun this journey by besting weaker foes with scornful ease. If this were a story, that would mean you have a real test coming down the line. And if you’re working for Vesk, it’s always a story.”

“No.” She shook her head slowly, also gazing out across the park now, even as Rainwood turned to look at her in mild surprise. “That wasn’t the test, or the lesson. Those simpering nobles were never the enemy. I was. I…don’t think I won that battle.”

He reached up to squeeze her shoulder. “Yeah. You’ll do just fine, kiddo. All right, now I’ve gotta be moving along myself.” The shaman hiked up his staff, leaning it over his shoulder, and turned to amble back toward the group, Trissiny following along. “As I mentioned before, I have my own quest. The spirits are guiding me westward, where my help is needed.”

“By whom?” Toby asked, turning to him.

Rainwood grinned and shrugged. “No idea! That’s the fun of both shamanism and adventure: you figure it out as you go.”

“Well…uh, nice meeting you, then,” said Gabriel.

“I’ve got a funny feeling our paths haven’t crossed for the last time,” Rainwood replied, winking. He patted Trissiny on the upper back. “But who knows? We’ll all find out what’s in the future when we get there. Till then.”

It was the strangest thing to observe; he didn’t seem to transform, exactly, but one moment he was an elf and then he wasn’t, and it was as if he never had been and they’d only just noticed. Trissiny recalled Kuriwa doing very much the same thing. Jeb let out a muffled exclamation of surprise, which the little black cat ignored, trotting away across the park. They all stared after him until he ducked under a bush and was gone from sight.

“That was one weird dude,” Zeke observed. “Paid well, though.”

“You’ve got interesting relatives, Triss,” said Gabe.

She sighed. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“So!” Jeb grinned broadly at them. “Where y’all off to next, then?”

“I think you boys mentioned you were between steady jobs at the moment,” Trissiny said. “And that you came from a ranch originally. Right?”

“Hey, you remembered!” Jeb said cheerfully. “See, Zeke, I told you she was nice! Pays attention to us little folk an’ everything.”

“I never said she wasn’t nice, Jeb,” Zeke said quickly, glancing at Trissiny. “I said she has more important stuff to do than worry about the likes a’ you an’ me. Which was true.”

Trissiny opted not to weigh in on that. Instead, ignoring Gabriel’s snickering, she reached into her coat and carefully extracted the sealed letter she had stashed there, holding it out to Zeke. “Right. Well, you did help me, in the end, and I didn’t want to just cut you loose and vanish—”

“All right!” Jeb whooped, actually jumping into the air and pumping a fist skyward. “You just say the word, boss lady! We’re off ta kick ass and praise Avei!”

She stared at him for a moment, then turned back to his brother. “…so I wrote you a letter of recommendation. If you decide you’ve had enough of Calderaas, charter a Rail caravan to Last Rock and give this to Mr. Ryan Cartwright. He owns most of the horses along that stretch of frontier; anybody in town can direct you to him. Gabe and I worked for him last year, and he liked us both well enough I’m confident my recommendation will get you a job.”

Jeb had fallen still, frowning at her in consternation. Zeke slowly reached up to accept the envelope, also looking puzzled. “Uh, maybe it’s none o’ my business, ma’am, but why was a couple’a paladins workin’ as ranch hands?”

“Punishment duty,” Gabriel explained, grinning. “One of the options Tellwyrn gave us was jobs in town with wages transferred to the University. We both went for that one, since it involved the greatest distance from her squawking.”

“Last Rock is a tiny town,” Trissiny continued, “but it’s not a boring one. You’ll meet all kinds of people. Especially girls,” she added, giving Jeb a pointed look. “The sort you like, with backbones and no patience for your crap, Jeb. Townies, passing adventurers, University students. If you get tired of trying your luck in the city, it’s an option, anyway.”

“Girls?” Toby’s eyebrows had risen so high it almost looked painful. “Trissiny, you’re helping them get dates?”

“Uh…how certain are we that this is really Trissiny?” Gabriel muttered out the corner of his mouth, sidling closer to him.

“Her aura is unmistakable,” Ariel replied, making Jeb jump and look around for the source of her voice.

“That’s…real thoughtful of you, ma’am,” said Ezekiel slowly. “I appreciate the gesture. You don’t owe us nothin’, though. It was a plumb honor to help out a little.”

“I thought we might could come with you!” Jeb burst out, suddenly giving up searching for the voice and turning to her, hat in hand and being roughly squeezed the way he did when nervous. Zeke sighed, but his brother continued on, undaunted. “Cos, y’know, you’re sorta right, Calderaas ain’t been that great for us. But, come on, what’re the odds a’ two guys like us meetin’ a paladin? Twice? Maw always said, the gods move in mysterious ways. We can both ride an’ shoot and we ain’t afraid o’ hard work!”

“Good,” she said firmly. “Those are traits you’ll need on Cartwright’s ranch.”

“Yeah, but—”

“People like you get killed for following people like me!” she snapped. “Ignore anything Rainwood told you about adventure, Jenkins. That stuff’s for storybooks. My life is violence, destruction, and being manipulated into one disaster after another. Do you understand? You will die, and I don’t need to see that happen.”

“Well…shit, Ms. Trissiny, everybody dies a’ somethin’,” Jeb said earnestly. “Our great uncle Leroy, Vidius rest his soul, got swarmed by kobolds. But he made it mean somethin’! He protected his family an’ the house till help could come. I figured, ever since, if everybody’s gotta go out, I wanna make it…y’know, important.”

“Well, you can do that on your own time, if that’s what you want,” she said curtly. “I have real work to do, and no more time to babysit you.”

“C’mon, Jeb,” Zeke said quietly, taking him by the elbow. “It was a good day’s work, now let’s not waste the paladin’s time.”

Jebediah resisted his brother’s tugging, still staring at Trissiny with a frown of increasing consternation. “Hell, ma’am, we ain’t made a’ glass. If you just don’t like us, you can say so.”

“Why would I like you?” Trissiny roared, causing him to shy back in shock. “The whole time I’ve been saddled with you two nincompoops has been one mess after another, all cause because you two are more incompetent at everything you attempt than any human being can possibly be and still be alive! I swear, you’re either fairies in disguise or you’re doing it on purpose, and either way I have had just about enough of your nonsense. You act like that in my business and within one week, tops, you’ll be dead with your entrails spread around a two-acre area. And just because I don’t want to watch that doesn’t mean it would be any less of a relief!”

Jeb gaped at her with his mouth open. Zeke, Toby, and Gabriel were a little more contained, but not by a lot; the shock appeared to be universal.

After a few excruciating seconds of silence, Jebediah closed his mouth, swallowed heavily once, and took a step backward. He carefully tipped his hat to her, turned, and walked away.

Zeke, seeming unsure what to do, himself, finally cleared his throat and tipped his own hat in her direction. “…ma’am.” Then he followed after Jeb, leaving stillness behind.

Trissiny watched them go, slowly drawing in a deep breath. She let it out with the same deliberate slowness, as if maintaining that control could expel everything seething in her at that moment.

Toby stepped up next to her. His expression, now, was purely concerned.

“Please don’t,” she said. He opened his mouth, closed it, nodded, and patted her on the shoulder.

“So, uh,” Gabriel said from behind them, “far be it from me to interrupt all the awkwardness, but you guys might wanna look at this.”

They turned, and what was coming up the path drove the whole conversation out of their minds.

Easily the most incredible thing was that none of the other people in the park reacted to the approach of the carriage; it appeared no one could even see it. Apart from being an unusual open-topped model and painted solid black, the carriage itself was not very noteworthy. Its driver, though, was a lean man in a broad black hat, holding a vicious-looking scythe which towered over his seat. It was the horses pulling the vehicle which were most alarming, though. Skeletally emaciated, they had eyes which flickered with dim blue flames, and streaming wisps of black smoke for manes and tails; their hooves made a peculiar ringing sound on the path, shod with brightly glowing metal which tended to send up sparks when it touched the ground.

The carriage pulled up to a stop right alongside them, and the driver tugged the brim of his wide hat, which was too broad to comfortably lift, and gave them a thin smile.

“Morning, kids,” Vidius said pleasantly. “Interest you in a lift?”

 

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14 – 5

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Trissiny privately thought that House Araadia’s ancestors would be disgusted. The current head of House clearly didn’t know what a perimeter was, much less how to maintain it; getting in had been quite literally a walk in the park. Specifically, the small private park which had a secret entrances leading both into the manor and the alley behind the estate. Once through the outer defenses—to apply the word very loosely—navigating the manor itself wasn’t any more difficult. It was unfair, she knew, to cast such aspersions when this was actually helping her, not to mention that she was getting inside using intel provided by an actual member of the Araadia family, and the path had been opened by agents planted within the family’s servants and secured by Thieves’ Guild enforcers by the time she even got there.

But still, it was the principle of the thing. There had been a time when a noble House was meant to be a defensible political unit; on paper, at least, they still had the obligation to protect those within their employ. Hostiles should not be able to just walk in. Hell, she, Gabriel, and Yasmeen weren’t even the worst of it; Toby had literally gone in the front door and bluffed his way through using sheer rank.

“And this is a feature common to ballrooms owned by Houses, or facilities which cater to them,” Yasmeen narrated quietly, leading the way to the balcony rail which overlooked the dance floor a story below. “An architect’s duty is to provide a grand public space where people can mingle and be seen, balanced with liberal access to private corners where they can disappear to canoodle and/or plot skulduggery. Wraparound balconies such as this aren’t the only way to achieve this result, but they’re a particularly efficient one, and thus popular. Note the position of the fairy lamps on the outer sides of the support pillars, and lack of any lighting on the balcony itself! This, coupled with these strategic climbing vines—not easy to cultivate indoors—and the high, outward-leaning rail, make it all but impossible for those below to observe those above, while we can see them with perfect clarity.”

Trissiny touched Gabriel on the shoulder, tugging lightly; he had gone right to the rail and been about to lean out over it. At her silent urging, he pulled back, giving her a wry look.

“The Guild has secured this spot for now,” Trissiny said in a low voice, “but the longer they keep people out, the more likely someone will notice and make an outcry.”

“That’s inevitable, anyway,” Yasmeen replied at the same volume, “given that this is far from the only spot they are pinning down. Timing will be the key; the pieces are already in motion, and you must move at the right moment. It will be best if your moment comes before the guests realize they are encircled by thieves, but it should work regardless.”

“There’s a Butler down there,” Trissiny noted. “Guild enforcers are not going to stand up to that.”

“He’s accompanying Lord Taveshin,” Yasmeen reassured her. “Lady Araadia doesn’t have one. Wilkes will only act to protect his client, not secure House Araadia.”

“How many of those women with swords know how to use them?”

“I would say roughly half. But really, it won’t come to that, I assure you.”

“Hm,” Trissiny grunted skeptically, studying the guests. It wasn’t quite as easy as the design of the ballroom was meant to make it from up here; the place was dimmer than it would ordinarily be, with much of the light provided by glowing illusory trees and vines which had been conjured around the walls, climbing the support pillars, and overshadowing the buffet tables. The effect was dizzyingly beautiful, but did no favors for visibility.

She looked up to find Gabriel watching her sidelong, wearing an amused little smile.

“What are you smirking at?” she demanded.

He shook his head, smile widening, and turned his gaze back to the scene below. “I’ve missed you.”

That was so far from what she had expected that she could only stare at him, mouth slightly open. At least he was no longer looking in her direction, or she’d never live that down.

“Ah, looks like Toby’s already struck out before we arrived,” Yasmeen murmured, pointing.

“Struck out?”

“Baseball term,” Gabriel explained. “Didn’t you play baseball growing up?”

“Ball games aren’t huge in Viridill. Martial arts and war games, mostly.”

“Let me guess,” Gabriel said, narrowing his eyes to peer closely at Toby down below, “that’s this Lark character I’ve been hearing about.”

“The same,” Yasmeen confirmed.

Oliver Lark was the Vidian cleric who was apparently a key player in city politics, and a large part of the reason for their intervention here. To judge by his name and fair coloring, he was of frontier stock; most of the nobles assembled below were local, the Calderaan being the same dark-haired and olive-skinned ethnicity as the Tiraan, by and large. Lark and Toby stood off to the side, conversing quietly, which meant that Toby’s first intervention with Lady Araadia had failed. Both of them stood out somewhat, being in formal clerical robes, Lark’s a dashing ensemble of black and white (Vidians did not have an official costume, exactly, but borrowed elements from other cults to create whatever impression circumstances required), while Toby wore plain and simple brown which contrasted powerfully with the glittering outfits all around him. Trissiny had never seen him wear robes before. In fact, he looked rather stately in them.

Unlike the last time she had crashed a high society party, she was just in her silver armor, not having bothered with a dress uniform. She wasn’t here to impress these people—at least, not favorably. The armor’s disappearance from the grove might worry Lanaera, which she regretted, but a shaman of her grandmother’s skill could doubtless verify that she was well; fae magic was good for information gathering, provided it was gathered by spirits with whom the shaman had a good relationship. Gabriel hadn’t dressed up, either, though he had at least brushed clean his dark green overcoat and combed his hair, for once.

Glancing at him, she did a surreptitious double take. When had he started carrying his spine so straight? She remembered him with a permanent awkward hunch. It made him look taller.

“Now, that’s the one we’ll want to watch,” Yasmeen said, stepping up to the rail, and pointing. “Lady Irina Araadia is the one in blue, with half her tits on display like a burlesque dancer. As soon as Velvet makes her move, you’ll need to make yours.”

“I see her,” Trissiny nodded. “And it’s really not necessary to shame another woman for either her body or sexuality, Yasmeen.”

“Trissiny, please! A little credit!” Yasmeen turned to her, putting on a faux-wounded look. “I am fashion shaming. Do you note, glancing about, that decolletage is not a widely used component of current styles? Clothing is communication. It is a powerful way to send a message, to express the very identity one chooses to cultivate. I know you are aware that the greatest effect of that silver armor is not its ability to protect you from arrows. It reveals a great deal about a woman if the only thing she can think to express is ‘hey, look at these!’”

“Heh,” Gabriel muttered, grinning. “Reveals.”

Trissiny gave him a long-suffering look. “And you almost got through a conversational mention of breasts without making an ass of yourself.”

“I know, right? Close save!”

“How dare you!” The shrill exclamation was loud enough to cut through the general pattern of lively conversation among the party-goers and drift up to the balcony above. In the sudden silence below, a path opened as socially-attuned aristocrats melted out of the way of Lady Araadia and the dark-suited figure of Velvet, the local Guild Underboss, who had appeared next to the tables and was in the process of selecting a canape.

“And that’s our cue,” Gabriel said, pushing back from the rail. “Wish us luck!”

“You don’t need it, my dears,” Yasmeen assured them with a smirk of pure mischief. “Just be yourselves.”

He gallantly offered Trissiny his arm. “My lady?”

“I’m only not smacking you because I want your hair still relatively presentable when we get down there,” she informed him, turning and making for the main stairs, in the opposite direction from the discreet servant’s staircase by which they had reached the balcony. He laughed, falling into step beside her.

The sound of the ongoing row faded as they descended the stairwell, then grew again when they were closer to the bottom floor. While on the stairs, Gabriel withdrew the twisted black wand from inside his coat and extended it to its full length, using the scythe like a walking stick. Somehow, the rhythmic thump of its shaft against the floor was ominous even to her.

The stairs came out at a landing where a grand hall led from the front of the manor, right before a pair of wide doors which opened onto the ballroom itself—or rather, onto a short flight of steps descending to it, giving those assembled within a perfect view of anyone entering. A stately-looking man in Araadia livery stood beside the doors, there to facilitate exactly that purpose. He was very studiously ignoring the loud spectacle of his head of House shouting at an intruder, but the sudden appearance of the two of them managed to surprise him visibly.

“General Trissiny Avelea,” she declared before he could challenge their presence, “Hand of Avei.”

“Gabriel Arquin,” he added right on her heels, “Hand of Vidius.”

The herald quickly marshaled his expression, bowed to them, and turned to face the ballroom. While Trissiny and Gabriel descended the stairs, his voice rang out, announcing their identities.

This, naturally, caused a stir—but a muted one, the party attendees’ attention being divided between them and the ongoing spectacle of the Lady of the House and her long-lost sister. That, of course, had been the entire point: arranging for the two paladins to corner Irina under circumstances in which she had no chance to seize control of the ensuing conversation. There was a time not long ago when Trissiny would have rolled her eyes and called Princess Yasmeen’s entire plan here a grandiose waste of time, but in the last few months she had learned a great deal about the importance of social maneuvering—and how the lessons of military strategy applied to it. Perhaps the most compelling argument for this gambit was how readily Velvet had agreed to it. A noble by blood she might be, but one did not become a Thieves’ Guild underboss without being hard-nosed and pragmatic.

“My tolerance was frayed to begin with, Cardassa,” Lady Irina was snarling at Velvet as they approached. “If you are going to disrupt my social life merely to taunt me, I will yet see you disowned and banished from the city!”

“I would honestly like to see you try to get me banished, Irina,” Velvet said with a light sigh. She had picked up some kind of delicate-looking puff pastry which glowed, tiny blue motes of light seeming to coalesce out of the air and form a scintillating glaze over its surface. “Are you actually feeding this to your guests? You’ve never seen someone suffering from mana poisoning, I take it.”

“Those were handcrafted by the— No, I will not be baited into another of these exchanges. Remove yourself from my house immediately, and I will spare you, one last time, the indignity of being bodily hurled into the street.”

“The guards are too afraid of me even to try that, and you know it. You’ll have to forgive my sister,” she added past Irina’s shoulder to Trissiny. “She’s still tetchy because I trashed her art collection.”

“The complete Fire Lilies collection by Avistaan of Anteraas!” Irina raged. “Those paintings were priceless!”

“Priceless is the same as worthless,” Velvet retorted. “Those paintings were neither. They were beautiful, and art is wasted on someone who values it only for how expensive it is. You keep doing things like this, Irina, despite my repeated warnings. A point is coming where I won’t be able to protect you anymore.”

For a moment, Lady Irina physically quivered, as if gathering herself to lunge at her sister. Instead, she drew in a deep breath, forcing herself back under control, and pointedly turned her back on Velvet, facing the paladins. Evidently she had heard their introduction, despite herself shouting over it; at any rate, her eyes flickered between them with no evidence of surprise. The fact remained, though, they had come upon her in the middle of a yelling fit, hardly befitting the dignity of a head of House.

Still, Lady Irina straightened her spine and inclined her head to each of them courteously. Dressed in a shade of blue which perfectly matched the arcane light that filled her ballroom, she was a beautiful woman in her forties, her face unlined and elaborate black coif untouched by silver. Younger than her sister, if Trissiny was any judge, which would mean Cardassa had abdicated the high seat of House Araadia. Or perhaps the socialite just devoted more effort to preserving her looks than the Eserite.

“What an unexpected honor this is,” Irina said with a tight little smile which did not entirely conceal the anger still simmering beneath it. “I hardly expected even one paladin to appear at my little soiree, much less all three!”

Trissiny raised an eyebrow. “Soiree?”

“It’s Glassian,” Gabriel explained. “Very trendy, so I understand. The lightworks are truly impressive, Lady Araadia. Keyed to a single spell lattice, I believe? Not very efficient, but it would give the caster a more total control over the whole effect. I see how that would be a benefit. Whoever did this is as much an artist as enchanter.”

“Ah—an enthusiast,” she said, smiling coquettishly at him, a little of the tension easing from her shoulders. “So little is known of you, Lord Gabriel. I am surprised to learn the world’s most famous Vidian is also something of a Salyrite!”

“It’s just Gabriel,” he said nonchalantly, picking up one of the glowing pastries and inspecting it critically.

“I understand all this is thematic,” Trissiny stated, deliberately keeping her tone and expression flat. “Something about a museum?”

“The Araadia Institute of Arcane Enchantment,” Lady Irina replied, nodding her head again, her face suddenly wary. “The founding of which is the event which this humble gathering has been called to celebrate.” Velvet snorted loudly, which Irina pretended to ignore, despite the reddening of her cheeks. “It will serve as a permanent exhibition of the productive science which has come to fuel so much of the industry of our great city. The cutting edge of enchantment, constantly updated and displayed for the edification of all citizens, and as a badge of pride for Calderaas!”

This brought a smattering of applause from the onlookers, which Trissiny talked right over.

“Yes, and I understand it’s going to take a substantial endowment from the Sultanate’s education budget. What was it those funds were earmarked for, before you came along?”

“Schools,” Velvet interjected before Irina could reply, casually tossing the luminous pastry from hand to hand and watching the light trails it made. “Eight new primary and secondary schools, to be constructed in the city’s poorer districts. Calderaas has been lagging behind the Tirasian Dynasty’s mandates on public education for two Emperors, now. Fucking Shaathvar has a more up to date school system.”

Trissiny turned an openly scornful glare on Lady Irina. “Really? Really.”

“Yes, I thought I saw where this was going,” Irina retorted, the pretense of friendliness gone from her own features now. “Your colleague made a far more persuasive appeal to my better nature, I must say.”

She glanced at Toby, who had stepped up to the group with Oliver Lark still in tow.

“I take it he overestimated your better nature, then,” Gabriel mumbled around a mouthful. “Toby tends to do that.”

“Tell me you aren’t actually eating that,” Trissiny said in exasperation.

“I’ll save you one,” Gabriel promised, swallowing and holding up the remaining half of his arcane pastry. “Seriously, lightshow aside, this is the best thing I’ve ever had in my mouth that wasn’t yelling my name.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Gross, Gabe.”

“As I attempted to explain to Tobias,” Lady Irina interjected in a tight voice, “the administration of a society demands a more complex, more nuanced manner of thinking than does traveling the land and smiting demons. One must consider the intricacies of the situation, and especially the future, and determine what best serves the interest of all Calderaan.”

“Mm,” Gabriel grunted, licking his fingers. “Big, fancy museum’s a much more prestigious thing to have your name on than a handful of elementary schools.”

“Not to mention,” Trissiny said grimly, “that it benefits a certain element of society more than the masses who work in that element’s factories.”

“I do say I am surprised at this level of attention,” Irina snapped. “Are there no open hellgates, no ongoing plots by the Black Wreath? Is our entire Empire, the very world, so blessedly free of evil that you three are at liberty to crash my social events? I have never heard of such a thing as three paladins intervening in a simple budget allocation. I must beg your forgiveness if I seem less than sympathetic, madam and gentlemen, but following on the heels of my sister declaring that harassing our House is her warped Eserite idea of protecting me, I am even less receptive to the appeals of religious people than your frankly inexplicable priorities would leave me ordinarily.”

“It makes sense, though,” Toby said in a quiet voice which seemed to balm the mounting tension, “if you understand how Eserites think, my Lady. If you persist in acting in a way which demands punishment, she protects you by taking it out on your possessions rather than your person. I don’t endorse that view,” he added, nodding politely to Velvet, “but understanding is the beginning of all compromise.”

“Regardless,” Irina said stiffly, “the discussion is academic. The matter is done and settled, hence this event to celebrate, which you all have now thoroughly ruined. I hope that fact brings you some satisfaction, because that is all you shall get from it.”

Lark diffidently cleared his throat. “With the greatest respect, most honored Lady, that is not necessarily so. The allocation of funds is the result of, as you know, many influences. It has been my honor to lend the weight of the Church and the cult of Vidius to your cause, but circumstances being as they are…”

“You would not dare,” she whispered.

He gave her a gentle smile and an ostentatiously helpless shrug. “In all aspects of my work, my Lady, I endeavor to navigate the complex currents of Calderaan society to achieve the end which seems, to my imperfect perception, the best for the city overall. Just as you yourself so eloquently explained. Clearly, the open opposition of every living paladin is a factor which changes a great many other variables. I am forced to reconsider my position. As, I fear, will be others present.”

“Well, look what a reasonable fellow you are,” Gabriel said lightly. “And here I was planning to threaten you with my scythe and everything.”

“Yes, so I assumed,” the priest replied, the smile fading from his face. “Your performance at the temple in Last Rock is already legendary, Gabriel.”

“Lark,” Irina hissed, “you intransigent little eel.”

“I am impressed that you are courageous enough to brazenly oppose the three primary gods, my Lady,” he said, bowing deeply to her. “I am a man of far lesser inner strength, myself.”

She bared her teeth at him, then abruptly whirled to glare at Velvet. “You planned this.”

The Eserite shrugged and finished chewing, having finally taken an experimental nibble of the mana pastry. “Credit where it’s due, little sister: this actually is delicious. But really, the glowing? Blue sugar icing would have been thematically adequate. You wouldn’t keep finding yourself in these embarrassing situations if you knew the meaning of restraint.”

Irina had to draw in another deep breath, this one wavering audibly, to gather enough calm to apparently work past an aggressive urge which would surely not have ended well for her. Instead, the turned slowly back around, and sketched an impressively sarcastic bow in Trissiny’s direction—a maneuver made risky by the unusually low cut of her bodice.

“Well, then, I congratulate you,” Lady Irina said icily, straightening up again and tilting her chin back to stare down her nose at Trissiny. “I only hope no one was sacrificed to summon a demon while you were slaying the vile threat of my political aspirations. Since you care so deeply for the plight of the working class, I will take the liberty of directing the laborers who would have been contracted to build a proud edifice to the Sisterhood of Avei for work. Are you satisfied, now?”

“No,” Trissiny replied, and punched her in the jaw.

It was a simple right jab, but Lady Irina dropped like a bag of turnips. It was a good thing she had decided not to haul off and throw her whole weight into it; that might have killed the woman.

Naturally, pandemonium immediately erupted. Screams and shouts rang out, accompanied by more than one metallic hiss of a sword being unsheathed. Trissiny had noted on the way in that only about half the women present wore Imperial-style gowns; others were in more traditional Calderaan costume, which included bejeweled shamshirs belted over their baggy trousers. Cavalry swords, to be sure, but she had seen enough Narisian fighting to know that a person with a long saber didn’t need to be on horseback to be exceedingly deadly.

Trusting the Guild enforcers to do their jobs, she ignored all the hubbub and bent to seize Lady Irina by the hair with her right hand. The noblewoman had been felled but not rendered unconscious, and was in the process of woozily getting to her hands and knees; she had enough presence of mind to shriek in shock and agony at being unceremoniously hauled upright by her scalp.

On the buffet table was a large crystal bowl of punch. Blue punch, which put off a faint, scintillating light—whether from the liquid itself or the glowing patterns being traced across its surface by some enchantment on the punchbowl, she couldn’t tell and didn’t care. Trissiny dragged the hostess bodily over to the table, shoved her face into the punchbowl, and held her there.

“Her Ladyship is correct,” she said, projecting from the diaphragm to cut across the hubbub, and ignoring the bubbles rising from the punch and Irina’s hands frantically scrabbling at her gauntlet. “This is beneath me. I resent having to come here and deal with this nonsense. It’s not as if there is nothing in the world more urgent and better suited for my skills. But at the end of the day, a paladin is called to serve an ideal—in my case, justice. And injustice is injustice, whether it is dealt by a bunch of smirking vultures conniving in a back room to cheat thousands of people out of the benefit of their tax money, or some warlock trying to summon a demon he can’t hope to control. The difference is that warlocks rarely suffer the delusion that they won’t face consequences.”

She hauled Irina’s face up out of the punch, in the process upending the whole bowl. It tilted, teetered, and finally rolled off the table, shattering upon the marble mosaic floor and splashing arcane-tinged punch across Trissiny’s boots, though she was already liberally speckled with it after Irina’s struggles. The Lady choked, gasped, and sprayed blue droplets everywhere as she fought to breathe, but impressively given her condition, she managed to shout (albeit in a somewhat gargled voice).

“G-guards!”

“Ah, yes,” Trissiny agreed far more clearly. “Guards?”

More gasps and shouts ensued, and now the gathered aristocrats began clustering together in the center of the ballroom, away from the perimeter, where two dozen Thieves’ Guild enforcers had begun melting out of the shadowed alcoves and servant entrances, grim-faced, shabbily-dressed, and visibly armed. The kept their weapons at their sides and made no move save to block anyone from fleeing. Still, this situation could explode into violence very easily; there were, at Trissiny’s quick count, nine women now holding up swords, and all had placed themselves around the perimeter of the gaggle of aristocrats, facing down the enforcers. She noted that every armed person was female, and she could tell at a glance which were potentially a problem; some held up weapons that were clearly nothing but expensive costume props, literally quivering. Even they hadn’t hesitated to the fore, though, and they were the minority. More than half were stone-faced, with correctly braced stances and practically radiating menace. Clearly, the nobility of Calderaas lacked neither spine nor skill.

“I understand,” Trissiny said loudly, tightening her grip on Lady Irina’s hair but allowing the coughing noblewoman to slump across the now-stained table. “It’s not so simple as that, or so you tell yourselves. There are a thousand compromises to be made every day, deals to be struck to get anything done. A more privileged position means greater responsibility, and why should you not enjoy the prestige and luxury that makes it all tolerable? Really, I do understand. It’s not even that the basic premise is wrong. It only becomes a problem when you take it too far.”

She drew her sword, causing an overall increase in tension. Two shamshir-wielding women turned to face her directly, blades upraised, and Trissiny couldn’t help feeling a trickle of approval. Backed into a corner, they were still willing to cross swords with a being they had to know could demolish them all with little effort. This group was far from useless; Calderaas might even be in good hands, so long as they took to heart the point she had come here to make.

“Three paladins didn’t come here because of Calderaas’s education budget, or Araadia’s museum. We are here because this has become a pattern. Because you, the lot of you, seem to have forgotten some important facts. Not one of your lives is more fundamentally important than the meanest laborer stacking crates in one of your warehouses. You are certainly not invincible, or impervious to repercussions.” She emphasized her point but wrenching her fist in Irina’s hair, twisting the woman’s neck and eliciting a scream which made several of those before her flinch. “Noble blood spills just as easily as any other, and runs just as red. Remember that, and recite it to yourself next time you find yourself contemplating cheating masses of people out of a basic necessity so you can enjoy another luxury.

“Because I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, I care about your privileges even less than you care about the fates of the poor. The difference between us is that I actually can shrug off any vengeance you try to impose. Remember that, and don’t make me come back here. Because the next time I have to come and carefully unravel the intricate webs you weave…”

Abruptly, she hauled Irina upright again, spinning her to face the crowd, and drove the pommel of her sword into the woman’s sternum. Irina’s shriek was cut off in a whoosh of expelled breath, and she tried to double over on herself—impossible, due to Trissiny’s grip on her hair, but she did cross her arms over her midsection, which was the point.

The ancient sword had a visibly scarred blade; it wasn’t nearly as dull as it looked, but Trissiny still channeled light into it, making the blade glow like the sun and honing its edge to a razor’s keen, before slashing it deftly through the inch between her fingers and Lady Irina’s skull.

Irina collapsed to the floor, weakly sobbing, the sodden mass of her once carefully-styled hair remaining in Trissiny’s fist.

She kept it aloft for a moment before tossing it into the puddle of punch and crystal shards.

“I won’t.”

The oppressive silence was marred only by the broken whimpering of the party’s hostess. Trissiny roved her eyes slowly across the crowd, taking the time to directly meet the gaze of everyone present who didn’t flinch from her stare, a trick taught to her by a Guild enforcer back in Tiraas. A lot of them glared right back. Fine; she didn’t need them cowed into submission, just aware of their limits.

Finally, she turned her back on the group. Toby stood nearby, Lark having beat a judicious retreat; he looked tired and mournful. For some reason, that irritated her. Gabriel was leaning his rear against the table over which she had so recently thrown Lady Irina Araadia, his arms folded and the haft of his scythe tucked into his elbow with its wicked blade gleaming above.

“Anything to add?” she asked dryly.

Gabriel shook his head, straightening up. “Threats are the province of war.”

Taking his scythe in hand, he casually swept it through the air overhead. A blue spark ignited along the blade, as if it had slashed through something invisible, and suddenly the room was plunged into dimness as every illusory vine and tree in the place winked out. This, finally, prompted more gasps and small shrieks, though not enough to drown out Gabriel’s finishing statement.

“Death…just happens.”

Toby turned and bowed toward the assembled aristocrats, hands folded before his midsection. “Thank you kindly for the hospitality. It was a lovely party.”

All three of them turned and strode toward the doors, Trissiny flanked by the boys. They walked without speaking, their footsteps unconsciously falling into a matching rhythm. Not a word was said until they had passed beyond the great entry and the wide-eyed herald, into the more well-lit hallway beyond which led to the manor’s front door.

“So that thing cuts enchantment, even?” Trissiny asked finally.

“Nothing doesn’t die,” Gabriel murmured, eyes ahead.

Toby heaved a sigh. “I can’t make myself be happy about this night’s work.”

“Yeah, well, you should.” They all slowed, turning in surprise, while Velvet caught up with them. “That was the whole point of you going in first to ask nicely, Caine. Next time an Omnist makes a polite request of any of those people, they will damn well listen. Now that they know they don’t want any of what comes along after. Believe me, that’s for the best. The whole world can’t be run by people like me and Thorn; if a society is kept in line by nothing but fear, it’ll tear itself apart. You may not like how I do things, but I really prefer if people like them listen to people like you before I ever have to become involved.”

“You sure you just wanna leave?” Gabriel asked her. “Seems like your sister could really use a friendly hand right now…”

Velvet shook her head. “She’s already never going to forgive me for the part I played in that; every second I stick around and witness her humiliation will only make it worse. This business has effectively neutered House Araadia’s political ambitions for a generation, I hope you realize.”

“Sorry,” Trissiny said, not trying overly hard for a sincere tone.

Velvet didn’t exactly smile, but the look she gave her was sardonic and not at all reproachful. “They’ll get no sympathy from me. Aristocrats are like church bells: expensive, pretty, and only useful when regularly struck. You did a good thing here tonight, kids; ugly, but necessary. If Yasmeen is able to come up with a play like this, she’ll make a hell of a Sultana when her time comes.”

Gabriel cracked a grin at that, but Toby just sighed.

“Well. I suggest we all move along before our welcome wears out any further. No offense meant to Calderaas, Velvet, but I find I am suddenly eager to find the Princess, collect our trinket, and get out of this city.”

No one had any objection to that.

 

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14 – 4

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“Vesk,” said Lord Quentin Vex, the head of Imperial Intelligence himself, a round of explanations later when they were all seated at the table. He seemed a fairly unflappable man—at any rate, he had not reacted strongly when a paladin burst in upon his secret meeting—but now a grimace of naked irritation crossed his face. “After decades of silence, that makes the second time within a year he has personally intervened in one of my operations—and turned a discreet, efficient procedure into a misunderstanding that could have gotten people killed. Last time, it did. I haven’t the luxury of direct access to the gods, lady and gentlemen; I wonder if you would be so good as to ask Vesk, next time you see him, just what the hell his problem is?”

“I will be glad to convey the message, Lord Vex,” Trissiny said grimly, “in exactly those words.”

“It seems fairly obvious to me,” Toby said much more quietly. “Knowing Vesk’s general personality and tendencies, that is. Quiet operations going perfectly according to plan are boring. Potentially lethal mix-ups? Now that’s a story.”

“I really am sorry, Marshal,” Trissiny repeated, turning to the man she had recently bowled over. He hadn’t been more than bruised, and even that was quickly washed away by Toby’s healing.

“No harm done, General Avelea,” Marshal Shaspirian said with a smile. “Getting knocked down by a paladin makes a great anecdote! One I can only share with people of my security clearance, but they’re the ones who’ll be jealous, anyway.”

“So, just to be clear,” Trissiny said, casting a careful look around the table, “Vesk was lying? You two aren’t in trouble with the government?”

“It sounds, based on what you said, like he played his usual semantic game with you,” Toby replied, shooting a look at Gabriel. “We’re in the company of Imperial representatives, but not in…custody. And as for trouble… Well, I’m just along to look out for Gabriel.”

She turned an incredulous stare on Gabe. “What did you do this time?!”

“Hey, let’s not blow things out of proportion,” he protested, raising his hands. “It was just a very small amount of obviously accidental…treason.”

“Gabriel!”

“He jests,” Vex said dryly. “Imperial law is clear: the charge of treason requires proof of intent. Accidentally stumbling upon secrets which are Sealed to the Throne and then casually blurting them to foreign nationals is not, technically, a crime. But it’s a swift way to find yourself having a conversation with Intelligence.”

“A polite one,” Gabriel said hastily. “If you’re a paladin, I think the difference is.”

“I won’t sugar-coat it,” Vex agreed, looking at him sidelong. “Your status is the reason this discreet little chat is occurring in a tasteful residence loaned to us by the Sultanate and not a dim room somewhere deep in a fortress. But no, Mr. Arquin is not guilty of any crime against the Empire, nor even suspected of disloyalty. His Majesty simply wishes to express his hopes that the Hand of Vidius will comport himself with a little more discretion in the future.”

Trissiny planted an elbow on the table, so as to lean her face into her hand. “Gabriel.”

“Okay, you can dial it down a bit,” he said irritably. “It was a simple misunderstanding.”

“If I may?” Vex interjected in a mild tone. “Clearly, General Avelea should be brought up to speed, but in the interests of my department’s discretion, perhaps we should avoid you being the one to explain, Mr. Arquin.”

“That is an excellent idea,” Toby said with a benign smile which only intensified in response to Gabriel’s dirty look.

“A certain facility,” Vex continued, “contains, among other very sensitive matters, a fallen valkyrie who is working for the Empire. We provide her with safe housing and ensure she does not accidentally harm anyone—which requires total isolation, as she is involuntarily very dangerous. Yrsa is, strictly speaking, a prisoner, but on fairly amicable terms. We provide as best we can for her comfort and she assists with other matters in the facility. As it turns out, her sisters know she is there and check in on her regularly. I did not realize this until very recently.” He glanced at Gabriel, who tried to look nonchalant. “Mr. Arquin has taken an interest in Elder God facilities, after the recent events in Puna Dara in which most of your classmates encountered one.”

“Let me guess,” Trissiny sighed. “You’ve got those in with the valkyrie.”

“She is very helpful in that regard, having been alive when they were built,” Vex replied in his placid tone. “Similar structures were recently discovered under Puna Dara and, it turns out, beneath an elven grove on the Viridill/Calderaas border. Mr. Arquin’s valkyrie friends directed him to the sites held by the Empire and the elves, and he chose to visit the latter.”

“I was kinda hoping to avoid an incident like this,” Gabriel said with a grimace. “The elves were very helpful, though.”

“Yes, I’m sure they were fascinated to learn their Elder artifacts are not unique,” Vex said, tightening his mouth.

“I did not tell them anything else about what’s under Tiraas except that it’s there!” Gabe said hastily. “That was none of their business, or even mine. And hey, now you know the elves have one, too! That seems fair.”

“Wait a second,” Trissiny exclaimed. “This thing is under Tiraas?”

Gabriel’s eyes went wide. In the ensuing silence, Lord Vex began very slowly drumming his fingers on the table.

“Aw, dang,” Gabriel finally muttered. Toby burst out laughing.

The door slipped open and the woman in the maid’s dress, who had not been introduced, peeked in. She looked immediately at Vex, and waited for his nod to speak.

“Excuse me, but are these two…gentlemen…attached to the Sisterhood of Avei?”

“They certainly are not,” Trissiny said with open exasperation. Then, feeling a little remorse, added, “They are bystanders accidentally caught up in something out of their league, and they’ve been quite helpful to me. I do insist that they not be mistreated.”

“I have no intention of treating them in any way at all,” Vex said, allowing the tiniest frown to pass through his vague facade. “I thought I expressed that clearly.”

“Yes, sir,” the maid replied, tension creeping into her voice. “I passed that along. They don’t appear to have believed me.”

“We was followin’ orders!” a male voice said loudly from behind her, followed by a muted thump and a slightly muffled rejoinder.

“Hush up, Jeb, let the lady talk.”

In the ensuing jostling, the maid jerked forward against the door as if something had run into her from behind, and tightened her lips into a compressed line of clear irritation.

“Oh, for the—” Trissiny furiously shoved her chair back from the table.

“Marshal,” Vex said quickly. Shaspirian was already moving toward the door. At his approach, the maid gratefully began retreating, which appeared to be made difficult by the ongoing scuffle behind her. “I brought Marshal Shaspirian as security on this trip for a reason, General Avelea,” Vex reassured Trissiny while the Marshal gently shooed everyone back out into the living room and shut the door behind him. “He is adept at handling agitated non-hostiles. Believe me, Intelligence is not in the habit of persecuting bystanders.”

“Where did you find those guys?” Toby asked incredulously. “They don’t seem like the kind of people you ordinarily hang out with, Triss.”

“They found me,” she huffed, scooting back up to the table. “It’s a long story. I’m reasonably convinced they mean well and just aren’t accustomed to goings-on of this kind.”

“Most people are not, and so much the better,” Vex replied. “Back on topic, then. This has been an amicable discussion, Avelea, despite what Vesk apparently told you. We have helped each other out: Mr. Arquin consented to be debriefed on the Imperial secrets he actually learned and what he did with them, and I have arranged a private meeting with Princess Yasmeen, which evidently they needed in order to fulfill this…quest.”

“Given who we are, we could probably have just walked into the Royal Palace and asked for a moment of her time,” Toby added, “but…I think, as a rule, the more discreet, the better.”

“And I heartily encourage the observance of that rule,” Vex agreed. “To date I had not even inquired about the details of your endeavor, but if Vesk is going to make a habit of mangling my operations for his own amusement, I find myself suddenly a great deal more curious. What exactly does he want from you?”

“Nothing,” Trissiny said acidly. “Vesk doesn’t want things, he just likes to kick the anthill and watch us all scurry around.”

“It is pretty iconic,” Gabriel added. “We’re supposed to collect four pieces of some special key for him. A key to what, I don’t know. But that’s pretty much right out of the old bardic epics, isn’t it? Paladins sent to assemble the fragments of the long-lost magical doodad. His first hint was that Princess Yasmeen of Calderaas had one piece, so…here we are.”

“Hm,” Lord Vex mused, even more noncommittally than usual. “I could see that going either way. Such an artifact may be important, or he might just have tasked you with collecting plot coupons so as to weave a good story. I imagine he’s suffered a dearth of those since the Age of Adventures petered out. You said he failed to mention what this key was for?”

“No such luck,” Toby said apologetically. “He’s been overall pretty vague.”

“I didn’t even know Yasmeen had the first piece,” said Trissiny. “Which makes sense, as I have no intention of wasting my time on one of Vesk’s lethally dangerous mockingjay hunts. I just came to extract these two from trouble, which it turns out they’re not even in. I’m going right back to what I was doing.”

“Aw, come on,” Gabriel wheedled, grinning at her. “How can you resist the call of adventure?”

“Is he serious?” she demanded, turning to Toby, who just shook his head.

“Wherever this business takes you,” said Vex, now pushing himself back from the table and standing up, “know that the Empire supports the goals of the gods and their Hands. If this is an adventure of the classic sort it’s unlikely to be possible for my agents to follow your movements, so I will not have them try. If, however, you need help, feel free to approach any Imperial Marshal. For now, I will bid you good day and good fortune on your task. Your other appointment should be arriving soon, and I don’t wish to intrude on that conversation.”

“Thank you very much, Lord Vex,” Toby said, rising as well. “For everything.”

“Of course.” Vex hesitated in turning toward the door, then shifted back and fixed Gabriel with a neutral look. “And, Mr. Arquin… If you find you have difficulty keeping secrets, perhaps you might adopt a policy of not learning them until you’ve had more practice?”

“That’s a good idea,” Gabe said, downright meekly. “I’ll just…request that the girls not go sniffing around in any more Imperial bases. Though I don’t see why they would, unless you have any more fallen valkyries squirreled away.”

“Just the one, thankfully,” Vex said dryly. “A pleasure to meet you all.”

With a final nod, he turned and slipped out through the door, leaving silence in his wake.

“I didn’t realize all the Imperial Marshals worked for Intelligence,” Gabriel said after a pause.

“They don’t,” Trissiny replied. “Imperial Marshal is the title given any law officer answerable directly to the Empire, authorized to carry and use lethal weaponry, and not a member of the military. It includes Intelligence agents, tax collectors, census takers, some members of the Surveyor Corps… A variety of duties. The whole idea is that if you’re dealing with a Marshal you don’t know who they are or what they can do. Might be an accountant, or a fully trained spy. Empress Theasia organized the system to stop the Houses from robbing her tax assessors.”

“Huh,” he mumbled. “So…what’s the difference between them and Sheriffs?”

“Marshals are Imperial and travel wherever their duties take them, Sheriffs are part of a structure organized by the Empire, but they work for the provincial governors and have a specific region they’re responsible for.”

“So…Sam Sanders back in Last Rock actually works for the Sultana?”

“For the Sultanate, anyway,” she said with growing impatience, “but all that aside, what were you two thinking? I mean, I can understand him!” She pointed at Gabriel, turning to Toby. “But you’ve had as much training as I have, surely. Didn’t anybody warn you about Vesk?”

“Oh, they sure did,” Toby said, making a wry face. “And I tried to warn Gabriel, but he’s been gung-ho about this from the very beginning.”

“Honestly, you’re such a pair of sticks in the mud,” Gabriel said, leaning back in his chair and grinning at them. “It’s a good, old-fashioned adventure, right out of the Aveniad! Learn to relax and enjoy things.”

“You see the problem,” Toby said to Trissiny, his grimace deepening. “I came along because the alternative would be leaving him to Vesk’s mercy, alone and unsupervised.”

“It’s been a good few years since I’ve needed a babysitter,” Gabriel complained.

“Well,” Trissiny retorted, “I’m only here because I was led to believe both of you were in some kind of peril.”

“So, let me get this straight.” Gabriel straightened up and leaned his elbows on the table, again grinning at them. “Vesk wanted all three paladins for his quest, but two thirds of them didn’t want to come. And yet, here we all are. Wow. He played you two like a couple of fiddles, huh?”

“That’s it.” Trissiny shoved her chair away from the table and stood.

“Okay, take it easy,” he said soothingly. “It’s not like I blew you off, Toby. You said a quest from Vesk was probably dangerous nonsense, so I arranged precautions.”

Trissiny was already heading for the door, but now hesitated, squinting suspiciously at him.

“Precautions?” Toby asked warily. “I almost fear to ask…”

“While you were packing,” Gabriel said with insufferable smugness, lacing his fingers behind his head, “I sent a telescroll to Tellwyrn explaining what we were doing and why. So if we’re late when classes start up in the fall, she’ll know what’s up.”

“You don’t think Vesk is actually afraid of Tellwyrn, do you?” Trissiny asked slowly.

“As in, for his life? Doubtful.” Gabriel shook his head, still looking placid and self-satisfied. “Now that I have privileged access to Church archives I’ve looked into the god she killed, and it sounds like Sorash created some really extenuating circumstances, and also had it coming. But there’s a lot of mess Tellwyrn can make short of deicide which Vesk probably doesn’t want to see happen. And he definitely won’t want the rest of the Pantheon on his case for setting her off. You know how she gets when people mess with her students.”

Trissiny and Toby exchanged a long look.

“It’s like this.” Gabriel lowered his hands, straightened up, and generally looked more serious. “Yes, I do wanna go on the quest, because it sounds exciting to me. But also, keep in mind we’re doing this at the instigation of a trickster god who’s already pretty deftly maneuvered both of you into complying. Before we decide to butt heads with someone like that, we’d better make sure it’s absolutely necessary. I don’t think it is. Seems to me the best course of action here is to play along, up to a point, but take precautions.”

“Now that you bring that up,” Toby mused, “if Vesk got any of us into real trouble for anything less than very excellent reason, all three of our cults and patron gods would land on him. Tellwyrn is pretty much icing on the cake.”

Trissiny sighed. “I still don’t like this.”

“And I don’t like cabbage sprouts,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “But I eat ’em. Growing boy needs his nutrition.”

“You can’t actually believe doing this fool thing will be good for us?” she said incredulously.

He opened his mouth to reply, but there came a knock on the door. Before they could answer, it swung open and Jeb peeked nervously into the room, hat in hands.

“Uh…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “Presenting her Royal Majesty—”

Zeke appeared in the doorway behind him. “It’s Highness, you goober, Majesty means a crowned head of state.”

“Gawd dammit, Zeke, I won the coin toss, I’m doin’ it!” Jeb hissed furiously at him. “A-hem. Her…Majestic Highness, Princess Yasmeen! Uh, of Calderaas.”

Both shuffled awkwardly aside and bowed almost parallel with the ground, Zeke at least having to flex his knees, being clearly not quite that agile. She appeared in the gap behind them, wearing a modest gown that showed wealth but not royal status, and a bemused expression. The Princess stepped forth, then paused, finding her way partially blocked by two bowing heads. After a moment, she turned sideways and carefully shuffled forward between them.

Gabriel visibly cringed; Trissiny covered her eyes with a hand.

Princess Yasmeen turned and said politely, “Thank you, gentlemen.”

The Jenkins brothers straightened up and grinned nervously at her.

“Yer welcome, ma’am,” said Jeb, turning his hat over and over in his hands. “And, uh, may I just say—”

Toby cleared his throat. “I think her Highness meant—”

“OUT!” Trissiny barked in her drill sergeant voice. They fell over themselves, almost literally, in obeying, but within seconds had vacated the room and shut the door behind them a good bit harder than it needed.

“I’m sorry to have missed Lord Vex,” said the princess, turning to smile at them, “but at least I haven’t missed all the fun. Apparently.”

“Thank you very much for coming to meet with us, your Highness,” said Gabriel, rising and bowing to her. “We greatly appreciate it. And there’s an explanation for all of this, which I will gladly share with you as soon as I figure out what it is.”

She laughed in evidently genuine amusement, easing much of the tension from the room. Yasmeen Aldarasi was a woman in her late twenties, pretty in a way that owed much to tasteful coiffure and cosmetics, and clad in a dress of dark gray silk with subtle patterns embroidered in black which were almost invisible at a glance. Altogether she was clearly a person of some wealth, though nothing about her presentation here suggested royalty.

“So! Toby and Gabriel,” Yasmeen said with a broad smile. “I believe I can tell who is who by description. And…?” She turned to Trissiny, adding an inquisitive tilt of her head.

“My presence here wasn’t planned,” she said apologetically. “Well, not by me, anyway. Trissiny Avelea, pleased to make your Highness’s acquaintance.”

“Trissiny!” Yasmeen’s expression positively lit up. “Wonderful! This makes it perfect. Sekandar has told me a lot about you!”

“Oh, I will just bet he has,” Gabriel said in an excessively solemn tone, then ignored Toby’s warning look.

“All three paladins, and fellow Last Rock veterans,” Yasmeen continued, pulling out the chair in which Vex had recently sat and dropping into it with a bit less grace than she had shown moments before. “You can’t imagine what a relief all this is. My whole day is nothing but parties, meetings, smiling politely at people and then plotting to stab them in the back before they do it to me. Oh, not literally, at least not in this century, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. Gods, I miss school. And the best part is you’re all so important Mother can’t complain at me for wasting time. Please, sit!”

“You enjoyed the University that much?” Trissiny inquired, slowly resuming her seat.

“Best four years of my life,” Yasmeen replied, answering with a borderline rakish grin. “Ah, I still miss my first Golden Sea excursion. After an unreasonably sheltered childhood, the whole experience was more joyous than I even know how to express. On the way back I got to punch a rock elemental!”

Gabriel let out a whistle. “How did that go?”

“Broke my wrist!” Yasmeen said proudly, holding up her right hand and flexing her fingers. “Believe me, that was very educational.”

“Oh, I believe it,” Toby assured her. “Honestly, your Highness—”

“Please! In private, it’s Yasmeen.”

“I’m just surprised,” he said, answering her infectious grin with one of his own. “We have a handful of nobility among the student body, and I’ve notice that…ah, how to put it…”

“More of them than otherwise tend to wilt outdoors,” Trissiny said dryly.

“Even Sekandar is more a quiet, keep-to-himself type,” Gabriel added.

“Ah, poor Sekandar,” Yasmeen said with a sigh. “He’s such a dutiful boy. It made it so easy to pick on him growing up, and makes me feel so guilty about it now. The sad irony of the hereditary matriarchy is that he would make a much better Sultana than I will. I once suggested that to Mother and she threatened to have me drawn and quartered. I am about…sixty percent sure it was hyperbole. But one learns, in Calderaas, not to assume that about Her Royal Majesty’s pronouncements. So, then!” She interlaced her fingers on the table, pushing aside Vex’s empty plate, and leaned forward to regard them with an eager grin. “Lord Vex was deliberately vague as only a spymaster can be, but I’m given to understand there is something about a divine quest! And you need my help, in particular?”

“I hope this isn’t too disappointing,” Trissiny said, “but I don’t think it’s anything all that important. We’re talking about an out-of-the-blue fetch quest from Vesk.”

“The god of bards?” Yasmeen raised her eyebrows. “Oh, dear. You are in trouble.”

“Thank you,” Trissiny exclaimed, looking pointedly at Gabriel.

“Why don’t I take it from the top?” Toby suggested gently. “As Trissiny…broadly implied, Vesk has a certain history of deliberately sending people on adventures that have no apparent purpose beyond the adventure itself. Which…honestly only appeals to about a third of us.”

“Yo.” Gabriel raised a hand. The princess winked at him.

“In this case,” Toby continued, “he wants us to gather the pieces of a key. We don’t know what it’s a key to, or anything else about it; all we have are broad clues, and in the case of the first piece, a specific one. Vesk claims the first piece is in your possession, Your—Yasmeen.”

“Mine?” She tilted her head, blinking twice and letting her gaze wander to a point beyond the room. “Humm. A piece of a key… How many pieces are there?”

“Four,” Gabriel answered.

“So a quarter of a key, then…assuming it’s divided evenly.”

“I’m sorry,” said Trissiny. “This must be as much a waste of your time as it is of ours.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Yasmeen replied, her grin returning. “It is rather exciting, isn’t it?”

“If you say so.”

“Ah, but you must be accustomed to direct communications from gods. For me, it’s not exactly part of the daily commute to work. And, in point of fact… I have a thought. Yes!” Abruptly, she pushed the chair back and stood. “Serendipitously—or perhaps not, under the circumstances—I believe there is something in this very house which may shed some light on this. Come, I’ll show you!”

They glanced at one another in surprise as she led the way back to the door out of the dining room, but rose and followed without further comment.

Out in the living room, Trissiny’s self-appointed escorts were clearly becoming restless. Zeke was standing at the front window, lifting the curtain to peek outside, while Jeb had picked up a fairy lamp in a ceramic housing made to resemble a rearing horse, and was examining it up close. At Yasmeen’s sudden entry, both jumped and straightened. Unfortunately, they also both lost some grip strength in the process, which did the curtains no harm, but Jeb went through a dramatic five-second fumble in which he almost managed to catch the lamp twice before it finally impacted the parquet floor with an expensive crunch. He immediately hid both his hands behind his back, staring at them wide-eyed, and swallowed heavily. Zeke sighed and tugged the brim of his hat down over his eyes.

Trissiny made a noise deep in her throat which echoed clearly across the room. Both brothers took two judicious steps back.

“Tell you what, gents,” Yasmeen said kindly, smiling at them. “Head through the dining room to the kitchen, and help yourself to anything in there. You must be getting hungry by this point, if you weren’t invited to lunch.”

“Uh…yes, ma’am!” Jeb said in surprise. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. I mean, your Maj…ness.”

“Much obliged, Princess,” Zeke said with more aplomb, removing his hat and bowing deeply.

Yasmeen glanced back at the three paladins, then tilted her head pointedly toward the other door out of the living room before heading that way. They followed, Trissiny after giving a long, warning look at the brothers Jenkins.

“Your cleaning staff may not thank you for that, Yasmeen,” she said upon stepping into the stairwell through the doorway. Behind her, the scuffling of booted feet hurrying through the house was cut off by another excessive slam of the dining room door.

“Oh, anyone responsible for cleaning this place is accustomed to inexplicable stains,” Yasmeen said lightly, already halfway up the stairs.

“Now that I think of it,” Gabriel said, following her, “Vesk specifically said the first fragment was in the possession of ‘the princess in her palace.’ That stuck in my mind; it has that over-the-top mysteriously poetic sound you get from prophecies in stories and whatnot. He didn’t specify you or Calderaas by name until after.”

“He said the same to me,” Trissiny added.

“I figured, based on that,” Gabriel continued, “the thing must be in the Royal Palace. But you think it’s here?”

“If my hunch is correct,” Yasmeen replied, “no, it is not. But there is something here I want to show you, which may shed some light on the matter. It’s just through here.”

She led them down a carpeted upper hall, opened a heavy oaken door, and ushered them into a spacious study. It was lined entirely by shelves laden with leather-bound books, most clearly old. Yasmeen went unerringly to one of these, tugging out a thick volume nearly as tall as her entire torso. The weight made her grunt, and Trissiny immediately stepped forward to lend a hand.

“Thanks,” Yasmeen said a tad breathlessly. “Just on the desk, there, if you please.”

Once it was set down as directed, she opened the heavy cover and began leafing through its pages with a deft, delicate touch, moving each with great care not to rumple it. The paladins clustered about, only Toby having the restraint not to crowd her, though Yasmeen didn’t seem to mind, being fully absorbed in the book. It appeared to be an art book of some kind, its pages filled with illustrations ranging from simple ink sketches to full-color paintings. The subject matter varied widely, the only theme being that the statues, jewels, weapons, armor and paintings depicted all looked expensive, and most old. Yasmeen was turning the pages too rapidly for them to read any of the accompanying descriptions, unfortunately.

“This is a book of some of the hereditary treasures held by the Sultanate of Calderaas,” the princess said absently. “Most of them, I daresay. It was printed in my grandmother’s time, and Mother isn’t one for accumulating knickknacks.”

“There is some neat stuff in there,” Gabriel said with a whistle. “Where can I get a book like this?”

“You can commission a bunch of the best artists and historians of your day to hand-craft a unique work of art,” Yasmeen replied with an abortive little huff that might have been a fragment of a chuckle. “Honestly, the things royalty finds on which to spend money. Sometimes I’m half-tempted to donate my entire monthly allowance to the Thieves’ Guild, just to see what happens.”

“I bet the Sultana would find that a splendid joke,” Trissiny said innocently.

“Brr,” Yasmeen shuddered. “Ah! Here we are!”

She spread the page open carefully, then stepped aside, going around behind the desk so the three of them could cluster in front and see what she had found. Depicted in a full-color painting on one page was a peculiar pendant on a twisted gold chain. Its setting was hammered gold, clustered with small gems, but the object they surrounded was a strange stone, long and narrow and cut in an uneven pattern.”

“Huh,” Trissiny said, reading the text on the opposite page. “It’s called Gretchen’s Dowry… Wait, not the Gretchen? From the story of Gretchen and Sayina?”

“Who’s the Gretchen?” Gabriel asked.

“The very same,” Yasmeen replied, then turned to Gabe. “It’s one of the great Avenist romances.”

He straightened up to stare at her, blinking in astonishment. “…there are Avenist romances?”

Trissiny rolled her eyes, then went back to reading.

“There are,” Yasmeen said gravely. “Even some which involve men. Not this one, though. It’s about the courtship of Princess Sayina of Calderaas and Princess Gretchen of Stalwar. The story goes, Gretchen’s father had no sons, and so as was traditional for the Stalweiss, held a great tournament. Whichever man won would claim the Princess’s hand in marriage, and be the next King. Actually, the wording of the tradition was changed to ‘whichever man’ because of these events. Before that…well, this was the third time a runaway Calderaan princess entered the games.”

“Oh, let me guess,” he said, grinning.

“The first two didn’t win,” Trissiny said, also smiling, though still with her eyes fixed on the page. “Apparently that was the point at which the Stalweiss stopped finding it funny. This thing really belonged to Gretchen? I always thought that story was a myth.”

“Oh, pooh!” Yasmeen scowled at her in mock outrage. “And you, the Hand of Avei. That story was always one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too,” Trissiny replied, “but the whole second act is a bunch of battles around Calderaas which obviously didn’t happen. Wars between Calderaas and Stalwar were pretty universally decided by which side of Veilgrad they were fought on. Calderaan heavy cavalry was all but useless in the mountains, but it obliterated anything the Stalweiss could field on the open plains. That’s part of what made Horsebutt such a menace. Nobody had ever seen Stalweiss archers riding Calderaan destriers before.”

“Since that fateful day in the Golden Sea,” Gabriel intoned, “I have made a point to read up the history of Horsebutt the Enemy, to verify that there was indeed a man by that name. It is well documented, and I want it entered into the record that I still refuse to believe it. It’s just too stupid.”

Toby cleared his throat. “The history is interesting, but maybe a little off-topic?”

“Yes, quite,” Yasmeen said, grinning now. “Anyway. Whatever its provenance, that necklace is part of the royal treasury. I got to wear it at my fifteenth birthday celebration. The setting is modern—obviously created only a few centuries ago, to judge by the technique, so it may not have been Gretchen’s—but the piece in the center is a fragment of mithril.”

Gabriel frowned. “A…piece of mithril? In a necklace, like a jewel?”

“A lot of the world’s most expensive pieces of jewelry are miscellaneous bits and bobs of mithril in masterwork settings,” Yasmeen said seriously, “most likely fragments of machines from the time of the Elder Gods. Look at the painting—see the detail on it? Dwarven-made mithril isn’t nearly so finely sculpted. The stuff cannot be conventionally forged; it simply doesn’t melt. Whatever method the dwarves use to shape it can’t produce anything more refined than a long cutting edge. Mithril blades are about as precise as they can make, and none shorter than an Avenic gladius; there are no mithril daggers. Anything more intricate is leftover from the Elder Gods. And in fact, pieces of pure mithril are the only Elder artifacts considered safe enough to collect. Being a natural magic neutralizer, it can’t carry curses.”

“Huh.” Gabriel blinked, then turned to Trissiny. “Did you know any of that?”

“I can’t decide which interests me less,” she said, “the Elder Gods, or jewelry. Look at this thing, though. See these details, at the top, there, and down on the sides of the other end?”

“Yes,” Toby said, peering closely at the painting. “It could be the shaft of a key. Those indentations are right where teeth would be attached, and a flat part at the other end to hold it while turning.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Yasmeen said in a tone of great satisfaction. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me until you showed up with your talk of keys and missions from the gods, but if what Vesk wants is a piece of a special key that I supposedly have, I rather think Gretchen’s Dowry is our best candidate.”

“Well, that raises some new issues, doesn’t it?” Gabriel said slowly, backing away from the book. “I mean, paladins or no paladins… Something tells me we can’t just walk off with a treasure of the Calderaan royal family.”

“In fact, I rather expect you could,” Yasmeen mused, wearing a mischievous little smirk. “In terms of sheer capability, getting into the royal treasury and looting it bare is probably within the scope of your power. Of course, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be consequences for that…”

“We are obviously not going to rob the Sultana,” Toby said firmly, “or you. In fact, I’m hesitant even to ask for an artifact like this to be handed over us, considering. We don’t know what this alleged key will open, or why Vesk wants to open it… And for that matter, we have only hunches and circumstantial evidence that this is the piece we were sent to find.”

“It almost certainly is,” Trissiny said, “though I heartily agree with the other half of your assessment. If the options are offending House Aldarasi or Vesk, I’ll go with the second one. I have some respect for the Aldarasis.”

“Oh, you’re all so serious,” Yasmeen chided them playfully. “Believe me, it will not be a problem to arrange for the Dowry to be delivered to you. I’d like to think the Sultanate would accommodate any paladin, at least to the extent of forking over some old trinket that has no actual use to us, but Calderaas is practically a second Viridill in terms of Avenist belief. My mother would probably give Trissiny the crown right off her own royal head. If!” She held up a finger. “If there were a good reason. Yes, I can get you your key fragment. But not, I fear, for free.”

A slight frown descended upon Toby’s features. “…I’m not sure it’s wise for us to get involved in Calderaan politics…”

“Please! Politics was mother’s milk to me,” Yasmeen assured them. “As such, I promise you I am not reckless enough to antagonize all three Trinity cults by blackmailing their paladins who are on a divinely mandated quest. No, I’ll have to ask for your help with something before I can hand over Gretchen’s Dowry…but I rather think you will like this, anyway.”

 

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10 – 14

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Darling’s irritating refusal to show weakness continued all the way up the winding trail that lead east, into the mountains beyond the city. To be sure, the trail they chose wound back and forth up the slope so as not to present an excessive challenge, but it was still a mountain climb; there was a significant vertical component to their trek. Joe’s indefatigable calm did not surprise him, for all that wandfighting didn’t seem like a particularly strenuous skill, at least physically. The Kid was a frontier dweller and had made his mark against many opponents; in any lodge of Shaath’s followers, he would be accounted a man regardless of his age. Darling, though, was a city slicker of the worst kind, and his failure to get even winded felt vaguely insulting to Ingvar.

Not for the first time, he considered setting off cross-country, straightening out the curves in the trail, so to speak. That was a good way to lose the track, though. Not that he couldn’t find a lodge in the forest purely on the strength of his own skills, but getting lost would add who knew how much time to the journey. Plus, he would eventually have to explain to the Crow why he’d ditched the companions she had selected for him. Ingvar had not totally ruled that out, but wasn’t to the point of deciding on it yet.

“Y’know,” Darling said breezily, stopping in the middle of the trail and craning his neck back to peer up at the pine boughs above, “in a way, I think I might be getting more out of this than you two country boys.”

Ingvar decided first not to hit him, and second not to dignify that with any response at all.

“Oh, I’m sure this’ll be rich,” Joe muttered.

“It’s just that… Well, I personally see a certain kind of beauty in the rhythms of a city,” Darling intoned, resuming his walk as Ingvar brushed past him. “In my city, anyway, though I suspect they each have a life and a glory of their own. But I can well believe that’s a kind of beauty you have to be particularly attuned to in order to appreciate it. This, though!” He spread his arms dramatically, as if offering to embrace the forest. It was a quiet, clear morning, the air filled with the songs of birds and insects, as well as the sharp scent of pine needles. Sunlight filtered through the branches over the trail in golden streams here and there, leaving most of the forest to either side in cool shade. The whole day could have been painted, as if it were someone’s perfect idea of an idyllic scene of nature. “I don’t care who you are, this is gorgeous.”

“It does have a kind of majesty to it,” Joe agreed. “Only forest I knew back home was the elven grove. Needless to say, I didn’t go in there much, but I vividly recall those few visits. The place was… It had this feelin’ to it, like it had been made for people. Not humans, necessarily, but people. Elves live in balance with nature, but while that means their land ain’t exactly parks, there’s a certain tameness to it. Like you can tell it’s under somebody’s control. This here’s… I dunno. Ancient, primal. Wild.”

“This is actually a very young forest,” said Ingvar from the front of the group. “Not much more than a hundred years old, if that.”

“Really?” Darling sounded legitimately interested, for whatever that was worth. “What gives it away?”

Ingvar paused, gesturing into the woods on their left. “To a limited extent, you can tell by the size and spacing of the trees. Note the lack of variation; almost all of them are about that big. There are no enormous elders, and relatively few saplings. Most of these trees grew up at the same time, and cast thick enough shade that younger ones haven’t space or sunlight to grow between them. That’s not a reliable proof, however; forests tend to reach a kind of equilibrium on their own that looks similar. More to the point, the spacing between them is very close to even. See how it almost forms corridors, going off into the distance?” He paused to let them both peer into the woods, noting the frowns when they saw what he meant. “In a way, Joe, this is the opposite of your elven forest. These trees were planted, on purpose, and then left to grow up wild.”

He turned and continued up the path, the others falling into step behind them. “To be truthful, though, I know the history of this land. There are a lot of centennial forests in the Empire. The Tirasian Dynasty has very careful laws about conservation. They needed them, there was so much clear-cutting and strip mining during the relative anarchy after the Enchanter Wars. The slopes around Veilgrad were one of the areas that were re-planted late in Sarsamon’s reign. A lot of the pine woods in this province were planted for logging, but the trees around the city itself are protected. They’re helping to hold the mountainsides in place and blocking snow, preventing avalanches.”

“Huh,” Joe mused.

“They also provide homes for game,” Ingvar added. “Meat and fur are economically significant around here, too.”

“Are you this well-versed on the state of the wilds everywhere?” Darling inquired.

Ingvar shrugged. “I could probably tell you the basics for most provinces. You can deduce a lot just from the climate, geography and nearby population. But no. Any Huntsman, even one who has never been here, knows how the wilds of the Stalrange live.”

“I see,” Darling murmured.

“For instance,” Ingvar went on. “There. Hear that?” He pointed upward. “There it is again—that bird, with the high-pitched, whooping voice.”

“Mm hm,” said Joe. “What’s that?”

“It’s a scarlet heron,” the Huntsman explained. “They’re not true herons, actually, they just happen to resemble them. It’s a coastal, tropical bird; it wouldn’t survive a week in a pine forest in this climate, at this altitude. However, the call is pretty widely known, as it’s uniquely easy for humans to imitate.”

Behind him, Joe and Darling’s steps both faltered as they paused. Ingvar glanced back over his shoulder. Joe had tucked his thumb into his belt, placing his hand near a wand; Darling ducked both hands slightly into his sleeves, curling his fingers back until they nearly reached the cuffs. Just for a moment, but it was enough of a tell for Ingvar to deduce the presence of throwing knives up his sleeves. A weak sort of weapon, in his estimation, and entirely characteristic of the thief.

“So,” Darling said lightly, “our approach has been noticed. Well, Mr. Grusser did say this path led right to the Shadow Hunters’ lodge. I guess that’s a good sign! They seem not to have hostile intentions.”

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Ingvar demanded.

“Well, anybody watching us can clearly see we’re in the presence of a Huntsman of Shaath, traditional attire and all,” he said, grinning. “So they’d have to assume you would recognize that bird call. Whoever else that message was meant for, it was basically an announcement to you that our approach has been noted. Seems like they’d be a lot more circumspect if they wanted to communicate privately. Or don’t you think these Shadow Hunters can imitate local birds, too?”

“Could be,” Joe allowed. “Could also be lettin’ us know we’re bein’ watched is a warning.”

“Meh.” Darling shrugged. “Not impossible, but as warnings go, that’s pretty flimsy. No, I think if they wanted to tell us anything, it’d be more direct. It makes more sense to me to take this as a peaceable sign.”

“Or,” Joe suggested, “they don’t care at all about three guys strollin’ through the woods, an’ there’s somethin’ truly dangerous in the forest not far from here.”

“Joe, you’re a regular little basket of sunbeams, you know that?” Darling said sourly. Ingvar held his peace.

The trees thinned as they climbed, affording a better view both ahead and behind them. Rounding one of the trail’s switchbacks, the three discovered they suddenly had an astonishing perspective of Veilgrad from above. The city jutted out from the foot of the mountains, a long finger pointed into the vastness of the prairie beyond. From this altitude, there were even signs of its recent pains; far more buildings were under construction and repair than normally would be, and there was a scar near its northwestern quarter where a whole block had burned.

Incredible as the vista was, they had to turn and examine the scenery ahead and above them in more detail, for they had finally come into view of the lodge of the Shadow Hunters.

Its general design was similar to the traditional Shaathist lodge: a huge longhouse, its peaked roof formed of enormous pine beams and covered in thatch, built upon a high stone foundation with a broad flight of steps rising a full story to its front doors. This one, fittingly enough, was more eclectic in design, somewhat resembling a medieval castle built around the main structure. Battlements were in evidence here and there along its peaks, notably surmounting the round tower attached to one front corner of the lodge. The tower soared twice the height of the lodge’s roof, but was so broadly built it managed to look squat; it had to have as much interior space as the main lodge, and more. There was also another rectangular segment jutting out from the lodge at right angles, smaller but built along similar lines, with a steep thatched roof. This one, however, was unmistakably a chapel, complete with stained glass windows and a steeple rising from its far end. Rather than an ankh as was traditional for Universal Church chapels, this one was surmounted by a stylized horned eagle wrought from iron. It was not the traditional eagle symbol of Avei, though it could well have been a rendition of the same kind of bird.

As they stood in the path, staring up at the lodge, a spine-chilling scream echoed from high above, and a shadow passed over them.

All three men turned to behold a winged shape gliding overhead. It swept out in a wide arc before coming in to land atop the lodge’s round tower, where it was hidden from view by the battlements. Given the speed with which it moved, and their disadvantageous position, they were not afforded a clear look at the bird. Its wingspan, though, had to be broader than any of them was tall.

Ingvar grunted and set off walking again. After a moment, the others followed.

A standing stone of clearly ancient provenance stood at the next bend in the path, marking the point where it turned to lead directly to the lodge. At least eight feet tall, the stone was so old it had been worn round by the elements, yet still bore traces of what must once have been very deep carvings, now outlined by the lichen clinging to them.

Atop it sat a blonde woman in coarse, practical garb similar to traditional Huntsman’s kit, casually working at a piece of wood with a knife.

“Good morning, guests,” she said as they drew abreast of her perch. “What brings you?”

The three paused, and Ingvar’s two companions looked at him, Darling with an encouraging nod. As if he needed encouragement.

“Well met,” Ingvar said, bowing slightly. Given how high up she was, dipping his head too deeply would have seemed ridiculous. “I am Brother Ingvar, a Huntsman of Shaath.”

“Not from around here, you aren’t,” she commented, pointing at him with her carving knife. “Not with that beardless face. I don’t imagine the local Huntsmen went out of their way to make you feel welcome, now did they?”

“You have trouble with the Huntsmen?” Darling asked. His tone and expression were a masterpiece of polite, neighborly interest; they seemed to work on this Shadow Hunter (for such she had to be) better than they did Ingvar, to judge by the way she smiled down at him.

“It waxes and wanes,” she replied. “Lately, the situation is not ideal. The Huntsmen got pushier by the day while the city was suffering from chaos effects, and now there’s absolutely no living with them, since they acquitted themselves so well fighting undead in the catacombs. Grusser threw them a parade. Only a matter of time until they overstep and he has to rein them back in, and they’d better hope it’s him doing it and not the Duchess. Oh, but I’m interrupting your introductions.”

“With me,” Ingvar said somewhat stiffly, “are Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio, and you seem to have already met Bishop Antonio Darling of the Universal—”

“Did you say Joseph Jenkins of Sarasio?” They finally seemed to have the woman’s full interest; she set down her knife and carving and leaned alarmingly over the edge of the stone, staring avidly down at Joe. “No fooling? The Joe Jenkins?”

“The ‘the’ himself, ma’am,” Joe said, tipping his hat. “Somewhat less impressive in the flesh than in song, so I’m told.”

“He’s a modest one,” Darling said cheerfully. “I guarantee no one has told him that.”

“Not true. Weaver manages to squeeze it in at least once a day.”

“Well, you guys must have quite a story,” she said, grinning now. “I’m Liesl, the gabby and insignificant. Since the honor’s all mine, I’ll try to make the pleasure all yours. Really, though, what brings you to our doorstep? This is like the beginning of a bar joke. A Huntsman, a Bishop and the flippin’ Sarasio Kid walk into a lodge…”

Darling laughed obligingly; Ingvar gritted his teeth momentarily, gathering his patience, before answering.

“My companions and I have come in pursuit of a spiritual matter. We were sent to seek the Shadow Hunters for… I…honestly don’t know.”

“Hm,” Liesl mused. “Sent by whom?”

“By Mary the Crow.”

She fell still at that, gazing down at them with a suddenly closed face.

“Well,” she said at last. “Well, well. You just get more interesting with every word you say. Not to mention more alarming… All right, hang on.”

She hopped nimbly to her feet, tucking her knife back into its sheath and her piece of wood into an inner pocket of her leather vest. Before any of them could say a word, Liesl stepped off the edge of the standing stone, plummeting to the ground.

It wasn’t a lethal drop by any means, but longer than a person ought to casually jump. She hit the ground in a roll, coming smoothly to her feet right in front of them and pausing only to brush off her leather trousers. Ingvar recognized the move well enough; young Huntsmen like Tholi were always doing similar things, as if to prove to themselves, each other, and the world that they deserved their rank. He felt grateful to have outgrown that phase, himself.

“Walk this way, gentlemen,” the Shadow Hunter said with a knowing little smile. “Your business is over the head of the likes of me, I think. You’d better come inside and talk to Raichlin.”


 

Parvashti opened her eyes, sighed, and hopped down from the rigging. It wasn’t a long drop to the deck; the Sleepless was a nimble little ship, built for speed rather than capacity. She barely had enough of a fall for her feet to make a good, satisfying thump, but it was still enough to alert the Captain that she was finally down. He had doubtless been twiddling his thumbs and listening for it.

“Well?” Captain Nayar demanded, thrusting his bearded head out of his cabin’s porthole. “Storm, or no storm?”

“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “The sea is…making up its mind.”

“Not sure?” he bellowed, vanishing back below. In moments he came bursting out on deck in his towering entirety, glaring. “Not sure? We either sail in two hours, or not, based on my esteemed windshaman’s prognostication. I’ve got cargo rotting in my hold!”

“How fast do you think Narisian platinum rots?” she asked mildly.

“Woman, I don’t pay you for not sure!”

Parvashti strode forward, glaring right back at him, and thrust a ringed forefinger into his substantial paunch. “No, Captain, you pay me not to nail you amidships with a harpoon, so caulk it before I decide I’m overdue a raise! Are you Punaji or a cave elf your own damn self? It’s the sea! It’ll make up its mind when it does, and I’ll know before anyone else. You want certainty of a storm? Stick your great bearded gob into the waves and tell Naphthene what a twat she is. Until then, you’ll have to be content with being a little ahead of everyone else on these docks!”

“Bah!” Nayar roared, throwing up his hands and turning to scowl at the city behind. Anteraas perched on a narrow wedge of flat land between the cliffs that made up the Tiraan Gulf’s coast, flanked by the ancient stone arms of its harbor. Those cliffs rose in both directions, climbing toward the Stalrange in the east and toward Tiraas itself, atop the Tira Falls barely visible to the west. In times past, the capital had been visible only on the clearest of days, but now its glow made it a constant presence on any night that wasn’t too thickly shrouded by fog.

“Oh, keep your beard on,” Parvashti said in a milder tone. “How much money have I made you already? I guarantee no one else knows the portents my familiars can read. We’ll need most of those two hours anyway to wait for the others to get back with the supplies.”

“Fine, fine,” Nayar grunted. “As soon as everyone’s aboard and everything stowed, we set sail.”

“But—”

He held up a hand to forestall her. “Trade is as much a game of strategy against mortal opponents as it is a game of chance against the elements. You know that slimy arseplug Gupta is watching us—he’s figured out that my windshaman knows things no other knows. When we leave the harbor, he’ll follow, while everyone else dithers to see what comes of this.” He gestured out at the gray sea and gray sky, calm but of a worrying color. The chilly southern sea was unpredictable at the best of times; some days, it seemed it went out of its way to obscure its intentions. “If you give us the clear to keep on for Puna Vashtar, so be it; the Sleepless can outrun that tub of his no matter what charms he’s finagled in port. If not, we’ll put in at Tehvaad and leave him to wallow in the storm.”

“Truly, you are a master of your craft, o great and canny one,” she said solemnly.

Nayar snorted to express his opinion of her wit. “Oh, did you get your paper?”

“Paper? What paper?”

“The newspaper. You didn’t subscribe to one?”

“Sub— News— Captain, what have I told you about drinking on the job?”

“That I’d better invite you?” he replied with a grin.

“Damn right! What the fuck newspaper do you think I would subscribe to? When would I do such a thing? What address do I have? Why would I care what the shorecrawlers think is fit to print? Use that shaggy hatstand for its intended purpose!”

“You’re going to make some poor bastard a dreadful wife someday, you ungodly shrew,” he said. “All I know is—in fact, here.” He ducked back below decks for a moment, reemerging almost immediately with a newspaper bound in twine, a small note tied to it. “This was delivered by some boy while you were up there mumbling at the wind. Has your name and all, so I figured… Eh. Maybe one of the crew just thought you’d be interested and sent it along. The headline’s about that crazy school you went to.”

“What?” Parvashti strode forward, snatching it from his hand. “Give me that!”

She ripped away the twine while he muttered imprecations about her manners and stomped to the port rail to glare out at the sea. Parvashti’s eyes darted rapidly back and forth across the page, a frown growing on her features as she read.

“Captain,” she said, “when we next make port… I might want to take a little leave soon.”


 

“There,” Erland grunted, backing out of the tight space between boilers into which he’d had to squeeze to reach the access panel. “You were right, Harald, it was the glass conduits. Somehow, some idiot managed to forget to fix them properly in their housings.” He made a point to speak respectfully to his partners at all times, even when correcting them; having been the idiot in question, he felt free to express his frustration a little more directly.

“And the glass?” Harald said nervously, apparently not making note of Erland’s mistake. “It’s all right, no cracks?”

“All in perfect order,” Erland assured him, holding up his pocket lens and thumbing the charm that made its rim glow. “The shutdown wasn’t due to damage, but Kjerstin’s protective charms working as intended. I double-checked the pistons for signs of strain while I was in there. Everything’s fine, no grinding or overheating.”

“I told you so,” Kjerstin said smugly, beginning to tick off points on her fingers. “Told you the charms were necessary, that they’d work, that you were too sleep-deprived to be putting in those conduits last night—”

“All right, all right,” Erland said soothingly, holding up his hands. “You can make your speech later. For now, we appreciate your charm work. The engine’s still intact, the conduits are now installed properly, and we’re ready to try again.”

The other two dwarves glanced at each other, nervousness plain on their faces.

“We are ready to try again, aren’t we?” Erland said dryly.

“All these false starts,” Harald muttered, rubbing his hands on his trouser legs. “Every time I get more nervous… Sometimes it feels the machine’s trying to warn us we’re up to something that should not be attempted.”

“Oh, bah,” Kjerstin snorted. “If nobody tried new things, the world would never change.”

“I know what my grandfather would say about this gadget,” Harald said, staring at the engine. “All this glass and filament… It looks like some kind of elvish sculpture.”

“Really, have you ever seen an elvish sculpture?” Erland said with amusement. “Make time to get out of the foundry and into a museum before your brain withers in your skull.”

“Your grandfather still wears his beard down to his belt,” Kjerstin said sharply, “and his generation isn’t too old to have to worry about getting it caught in gears. That is not a joke; you know good dwarves have suffered beard-induced decapitations, working with big enough machines. Some people are just too hidebound to embrace innovation!”

“You two want to re-hash this discussion again right now?” Erland said pointedly.

They paused again, staring at their machine.

“Feh, you’re right,” Harald said. “We’re putting it off. All right, Erland, let’s give her another go.”

“You could’ve built it with some extra dials or something,” Kjerstin muttered, folding her arms and betraying her own nervousness with a rapidly tapping foot. “Some dummy switches. Something for me to do.”

“I’ll work a few useless gizmos into the next iteration,” Erland promised, grasping the lever. “Here goes nothing, once again.”

He hauled the lever into the active position, opening the channel to the desktop-sized elemental forge hooked up to one end of the engine and letting raw heat blaze forth into its mouth.

Immediately, with gratifying smoothness, their creation purred to life. The sound it made was almost musical, high-pitched and harmonic, quite unlike any combustion engine they had ever worked with. Light shone forth from multiple points, orange fire from its exhaust ports, arcane blue beams racing through its exposed power conduits, multicolored runes igniting in sequence along the casing.

At the device’s opposite end from its power source, the piston began working. It barely had to accelerate, starting off pumping at nearly its full capacity.

They tensed, waiting for another alarm or sudden shutdown, as had happened the last four attempts. Nothing came, though. Just the light, the pleasant voice of the engine, and the rapid motion of its output piston against the springs and pulleys attached to the gauges Harald was monitoring.

“It’s stable,” Kjerstin breathed. “It’s working!”

“Kinetic output at fifteen jonors,” Harald reported excitedly. “By the Light, Erland, it’s even higher than we projected!”

“That’s a little too high,” Erland said, cautious despite his own enthusiasm. “We didn’t design it to stand up to that kind of power flow…”

“But it’s working!” Kjerstin squealed, bouncing up and down. “From a heat source to kinetic energy with zero waste or byproducts! Erland, we’re rich!”

A shrill whine sounded from the engine before he could respond; runes flared red, and suddenly its shutdown charms activated again, slamming the barrier shut to cut off its power source and force its lever back into lock position. The blue light faded from the conduits, and its soft voice wound down into silence.

“To get rich,” Harald observed, “we’re going to have to make it run longer than thirty seconds…”

“Oh, you big fuddy-duddy,” Kjerstin said, darting over to swat at his shoulder. “We’re just building a proof of concept, here! We have something to show the Falconers now—their grant is provably not wasted money. They’ll invest in improving it, they have to!”

“I never assume humans are going to do the sensible thing,” Harald grumped. “Please, Kjerstin, don’t get worked up this time before we see results.”

“It’s obviously just a matter of control, right? We refine the runes so that they regulate the power input rather than just shutting it off when it gets too much—”

“Oh, just like that? You’re talking about a complete rebuild of the enchanted components! And we’ll have to re-design most of the physical machine to accommodate…”

Erland let their discussion wash over him, listening with half an ear as he stepped over to his cluttered work desk and sank into the battered chair there, feeling weak from a combination of excitement and relief. He couldn’t keep the grin off his face. They were both right: there was a long, long way to go before they had an engine that would actually power anything, but the concept worked. It could be made to work, at least. All their efforts were finally bearing fruit.

His eyes fell on a newspaper, printed in Tanglish, sitting on top of his stacks of paperwork. He hadn’t bought that… Had Kjerstin brought it in to show him?

Erland’s expression fell into a frown as he read the headline. Oh, this was not good. Professor Tellwyrn was going to immolate somebody.

“Hey, Kjerstin,” he called, interrupting their argument. “Didn’t you happen to mention that the Falconer’s daughter was attending my alma mater?”

“What of it?” she said, exasperated. “You bring that up now?”

“You were talking about funding, and politics,” he said, eyes still on the paper. “There’s something unfolding down there that we may want to pay attention to…”


 

“Your pardon, Princess,” Cartwright said diffidently, “but this newspaper was just delivered for you.”

“Newspaper?” Yasmeen said distractedly, picking it up from the silver tray on which the Butler held it out. “I’m not in the habit of reading the…” She trailed off, staring at the headline. “…Cartwright, who delivered this?”

“A young man who is not a member of the Palace staff,” Cartwright replied, her round face as impassive as always. “I took the liberty of ordering that he be followed. Needless to say, the Palace guardsmen are not equipped to pursue someone discreetly beyond the walls of Calderaas, but I suspect his point of origin is within the city.”

“A man penetrates this deeply into the palace,” Yasmeen said sharply, “a man you do not know, and you merely have him followed? What if, instead of a newspaper, he had been delivering a dagger? How did he get in here? He should have been apprehended the moment you knew something was amiss!”

“With respect, your Highness,” Cartwright said calmly, folding her hands behind her back, “the content of the paper, and the manner of its delivery, is suggestive. This means of conveying information is a favored tactic of both the Thieves’ Guild and Imperial Intelligence; there are innumerable possible motives either might have to draw your Highness’s attention to Last Rock. Apprehending an agent of either organization would avail us little, and risk creating considerable backlash. When our agents report back, we will know more about who he was, and can act further at that time.”

“I see,” Yasmeen said more calmly, returning her eyes to the paper and reading below the headline. “Quite right, then. That was quick thinking, Cartwright.”

“Your Highness,” the Butler replied, bowing.

“…where is my mother at the moment?”

“Her Majesty is currently entertaining Lord Taluvir in the west drawing room, Princess. His Lordship appeared quite wroth; the matter is likely to tax her considerable stores of diplomatic skill, I fear.”

“Hmmmm. This is definitely not worth interrupting her for, then. Unless…”

“There has been no message from Last Rock from or concerning Prince Sekandar, your Highness,” Cartwight said serenely. “Given the esteem in which House Aldarasi is held by Professor Tellwyrn, he can be assumed to be well so long as we are not notified otherwise.”

“Very well,” Yasmeen said with a sigh, folding the newspaper. “When she has the liberty, please inform the Sultana that I wish to speak with her at her earliest convenience.”

“I have already made the arrangements, your Highness,” Cartwright replied, “and ordered your Highness’s writing desk to be prepared with your favorite jasmine tea and baklava. Your Highness was scheduled to be interviewed by that unmannerly individual from the Wizards’ Guild; he has been informed that the meeting must be delayed.”

Any other servant would be reprimanded for such presumption, but there was no point in going to the considerable expense of employing a Butler if one did not let them buttle.

“Thank you very much, Cartwright.”

“It is, as always, my pleasure, Princess.”


 

Agent Fawkes moved as casually as was humanly possible, conveying the impression to any onlookers that he had every right to be here, on these enclosed manor grounds. Not that there were any onlookers—he had cased the premises quite thoroughly before entering—but one did not last long in his profession if one suffered lapses of professionalism. He laid the newspaper down on the steps to the manor’s kitchen door, which his intel stated was more heavily used by the house’s occupants than the front, and turned to make his way back to the side gate.

He found himself staring directly into a wide pair of eerie crimson eyes. She had appeared in complete and utter silence.

“Hi there!” Malivette Dufresne said brightly, smiling. “Whatcha doin’?”

For the barest moment, he froze. Fawkes was trained to confront the unexpected, to confront death, to contend with attractive women and terrifying monsters. The combination of all of the above was enough to rock his equilibrium, though. Just a little bit.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he said respectfully, stepping back from the vampire and bowing. “Just delivering your paper.”

“That’s interesting,” the undead Duchess said, her smile widening to show off her fangs in what he was certain was not an accidental gesture. “Because people making deliveries tend to leave them at the gate, since it’s not, y’know, open. Also, I don’t subscribe to any newspapers. But since we’re getting all friendly, my pet peeves are poofy-sleeved dresses, sausage too heavily spiced, women who wear too much makeup, and people who come to my home and lie to me.”

Fawkes allowed himself the luxury of a small gulp. Such a show of vulnerability could actually be advantageous; establishing himself firmly as a lesser creature meant she was less likely to do something violent. That was, if his intel on Dufresne was correct; if she were the wrong kind of monster, it could have the opposite effect. Now, face to face with her in all her unnatural glory, he had to wonder. For one thing, it was broad daylight and she wasn’t so much as steaming in the sun…

Malivette was considered an ally of the Throne and a citizen in good standing, and this was a mission of relatively low priority. Under the circumstances, Intelligence’s policy for such a confrontation was clear.

“My apologies, your Grace,” he said, bowing again. “I work for the Imperial government; I was told to deliver this newspaper to your home. That is the entirety of what I know of the matter.”

“Ahh,” she said knowingly. “I see. Well, then. Be a good boy and let’s have it.”

She held out her hand expectantly. Fawkes glanced at it, decided against making any further comment, and turned to retrieve the paper he had just set down. He placed it in her hand with yet another respectful bow.

“Now then,” Malivette said briskly, “let’s see what we have here. Oh, my. Professor Tellwyrn still retains her absolute genius for annoying powerful people, I see…”

Fawkes cleared his throat very softly, stepping backward away from her. “Well. Enjoy your paper, your Grace. If there’s nothing further, I’ll be going.”

The vampire made no response, crimson eyes tracking back and forth as she read the lead article. Fawkes stepped back twice more before turning his back on her. He did not rush, nor pick up his pace in the slightest, as he made his way back across the grounds. Professionalism.

Still, it was with considerable relief that he finally slipped out the side gate into the overgrown path beyond. He didn’t quite indulge himself in a sigh, knowing roughly the range of that creature’s hearing, but allowed himself to un-tense slightly as he re-latched the gate behind him, then turned to head back into the forest.

He was instantly seized by the throat and slammed back into the gate.

“One other thing,” Malivette said in total calm, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to suddenly be standing there on this side of the wall. She wasn’t even looking at him, still reading the newspaper held in one hand; the fingers of her other one were as icy and rigid as marble against his neck. Fawkes had better sense than to struggle against them, merely rising up on tiptoe so he could continue to breathe. “Be a love and report to Lord Vex that if he wants to give me a message, he can do so like a civilized person. If I continue to find his playthings creeping about my back steps, I can’t guarantee he’ll get them back in one piece. Clear?”

“Explicitly,” Fawkes replied, unable to fully compensate for the strain on his vocal cords. “I shall relay the message, your Grace.”

“Attaboy!” she said brightly, releasing him.

He was, by that point, only slightly surprised when she exploded into a cloud of shrieking bats and swirled away, back toward the manor. At least she took the paper with her.

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