Tag Archives: Principia

13 – 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said crisply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Locke, Principia, Squad 391.”

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

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

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

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

She paused, shoulders shifting slightly with a deep breath.

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

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

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

Again, she paused to breathe before continuing.

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

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

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

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

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

She paused once more to frown and inhale deeply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am,” Ansari said, nodding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She waited only a few minutes before Rouvad rejoined her.

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

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

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

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

Rouvad nodded. “And your other weapons project?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Theoretically?” Principia murmured.

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

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

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

 

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11 – 42

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Trissiny exhaled sharply in relief as her boots touched down on the rooftop, though she did not fully un-tense until Kuriwa had let the rift she had opened close behind them.

“With all due respect,” she said fervently, “I devoutly hope I never have to travel that way again.”

Kuriwa gave her an amused smile. “Then, if you wish to keep making dramatic and surprising entrances, I suggest you keep company with friends who can teleport or shadow-jump. This is the best I can do with my craft; the divine offers nothing at all for rapid travel.”

Trissiny nodded, peering around to get her bearings. They were atop one of the mansion-like structures in Tiraas’s government district; just down the street, she could easily see the Svenheim embassy, which Kuriwa had just transported them into and then back out of by tunneling through a deeply creepy space between dimensions.

“I’m not sure about this morning’s work,” she murmured.

“I believe your ultimatum to the ambassador will have the desired effect,” Kuriwa replied, “coupled as it was with an alternative. Contracts for his country’s metalworkers to re-outfit the Silver Legions is by far preferable to having the Hand of Avei obliterate Svenheim’s intelligence agency. The stick always works better when the carrot is proffered as an alternative.”

“That’s what Commander Rouvad said. In almost exactly those words. That’s not really the part I’m concerned about, though.” She turned her back on the embassy, facing the shaman again. “I know Bishop Syrinx’s account of last night passes inspection, if just barely. But… Kuriwa, almost everyone we spoke with believes she honestly tried to kill Principia. And her entire squad!”

“Everyone,” Kuriwa said calmly. “Not almost. Don’t mistake Weaver’s mask of disinterest for disagreement.”

“It made sense when the High Commander explained it to me, but the more I think…” Trissiny shook her head. “I’m just not sure we did the right thing, letting her off that way. And apparently this is becoming a pattern. How many times is Basra Syrinx going to get away with literal murder and only face temporary exile or the loss of some possessions?”

“I would say,” Kuriwa mused, “that Farzida Rouvad is wiser than you, simply by dint of her longer experience. But one can be wiser and still be wrong—I know it all too well. In this case, however, I happen to agree with her assessment. Basra Syrinx, for all the disastrous potential she represents, is presently better left where she is.”

“I know why the Commander thinks that,” said Trissiny, studying her closely. “Why do you?”

“For entirely different reasons.” Kuriwa stepped over to the edge of the roof and seated herself on the low wall encircling it, tucking one leg under herself and regarding Trissiny seriously. “In fact, I strongly disagree with Rouvad’s assessment: she thinks she has Syrinx under control, and she is deeply mistaken. No, Trissiny, I am an old schemer, and I see the long-term value in this. Principia, for all her faults, is only a mere match for Syrinx because she allows herself to be constrained by her duty to the Legion and her care for her soldiers; when Syrinx pushes her too far, or when Principia advances herself enough to have the leeway, it will be swiftly finished. Then, too, the Bishop is rapidly accumulating enemies whose potency, or very existence, she does not realize.” She shook her head. “Basra Syrinx is not long to be a free agent…and perhaps, not long to be a living one.”

“So you think we should stand back and just let things unfold?”

“I generally don’t recommend that as a motivation, though as a course of action it can be valid. No… At issue is that Syrinx represents the rot that has accumulated in the heart of this Empire, as well as in the Church and the Sisterhood. Corruption, complacency, the triumph of individual profit over the greater good. It happens, when social structures grow too large. They begin to perpetuate themselves first and foremost, often at the expense of their original goals.”

Trissiny sighed heavily. “All systems are corrupt. Yes, I can’t seem to get away from that.”

“They really are, though,” Kuriwa said, smiling placidly. “Sometimes—well, often—one must swiftly excise rot when it grows. However… One treatment for infection, when magical means are not available, is to introduce maggots to the wound. They will eat the infected tissue and leave the rest healthy and clean.”

“That is revolting,” Trissiny said, grimacing.

Kuriwa shrugged. “The healing arts frequently are. So it is with other things. Sometimes, child, it is more profitable in the long run to let the rot spread, even help it along, so that it can eat away at old structures. When they collapse, new and better ones may be built. If Syrinx is simply removed as she undoubtedly deserves, well… There is nothing to stop another creature such as her climbing as high as she has, which itself indicates a serious failure of multiple safeguards. I deem it best to let her cause the destruction she inevitably will, and let the Church and the Sisterhood heal from the wounds which result.”

“That’s consigning a potential lot of people to significant pain,” Trissiny said quietly. “And possibly much worse. I’m sorry, but I’m still not sure I can stomach the cost.”

“Good.” Kuriwa nodded slowly, gazing up at her, then turned to stare down at the street four stories below. “Look at everyone, going about their day… They look so small from up here. Living too long can have the same effect. One sees the larger picture, sometimes to the exclusion of a thousand smaller ones. Having watched too many lives come and go, they begin to blur together, to lose the spark of significance… And yet, that is only perspective. None of those people are smaller than you or I, nor any less alive. We see the world differently, Trissiny, but your perspective isn’t less valid than mine. It may be less informed, but still worthwhile for that; too much information can introduce confusion. Just make sure, as much as you can, that you are thinking clearly and carefully before you act.”

Trissiny drew in a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “That’s a lesson I’m trying very hard to learn.”

“All you can do is try.” Kuriwa unfolded herself, rising, and reached out to squeeze the younger woman’s shoulder. “For now, I believe this business is settled. Don’t hesitate to call me again if you need me, child…or if you just want to talk. I always have time for family. You can get down on your own, I trust?”

“Wait.” Trissiny turned back to her, frowning suddenly. “Before you go… What does iyai mean?”

Kuriwa tilted her head to one side, and then smiled warmly.

“It means no.”


“Man, it seems like we’ve been gone from here a lot longer than we have,” Darius commented, setting his tray down on the table in the Guild’s apprentice cafeteria and plopping himself onto the bench. “Been a hell of a few days, right?”

“I already miss Rasha,” Tallie said a little sullenly, taking the seat across from him. “I mean, I’m happy for him, I honestly am. But he’s, I dunno… Kinda the conscience of the group. Know what I mean?”

“Not even a little,” Darius said cheerfully. “Hell, Tallie, he isn’t dead. Glory said we’re all welcome to visit—if anything, he’s our in with an established Guild member with a lot of cred. Be happy he got himself a sponsor, and a cushy room in her mansion, and be happy we’ve got ourselves a Rasha!”

“Yeah,” Ross said. “Cos we’re not gettin’ sponsors of our own. Y’know that, right?”

“Thank you, Sergeant Sunshine,” Tallie said acidly.

“It’s like the Boss said,” Ross grumbled. “Politics. We’ve been too deep an’ too high up; we’re mixed up with too many big deals. Nobody’s gonna wanna touch us; no tellin’ what kinda mess we’re tangled up in, far as they know.”

The other two frowned at him, then surreptitiously turned to peer around the room. No other apprentices were sitting nearby, and no one was paying them any attention. That could have been normal, of course; lunch was always sparsely attended in the mess hall, and the Eserites in general stayed out of one another’s business—except when they didn’t. After Ross’s glum pronouncement, though, the way everyone’s eyes slid past them was suddenly suspicious and disheartening.

Their own perusal of the cafeteria enabled Tallie to spot a friend approaching, though.

“Jas!” she called, immediately brightening. “Hi! Where the hell have you been all day?”

“Hey, guys,” Jasmine said, striding over and sliding onto the bench next to Tallie. “Sorry, had family business to deal with all morning.”

“I’ll just bet,” Darius said, grinning fiendishly. “It’s okay, Jasmine—it’s always a shock to learn you’re related to a dragon fucker. That’s natural.”

“Thank you, Darius, for your concern,” she said dryly.

“Now, I don’t say that to be judgmental,” he went on, airily gesticulating with a forkful of broccoli. “I, of all people! Why, you’d be amazed how many dragon fuckers there are among the nobility. We’re the ones, after all, who are so filled with ennui from our lives of tedious, idle luxury that we may be inclined to try something ridiculous to break the monotony. Like, you know, fucking a dragon. Not to mention that our womenfolk are often bred for beauty like prize racing hounds, exactly the sort who might tend to draw a dragon’s attention. It’s a deadly combination, really.”

“Anyhow,” Tallie said pointedly, glaring at him, “Ross may be right, but we’re not out of luck. So maybe we don’t get individual sponsors, fine, we’ll live. By the same token, we’ve got friends.” She grinned. “Glory, Webs, and Grip. C’mon, we all went through hell together! I bet we can finagle some training and maybe a few favors outta that!”

“I’m not sure I’d be willing to trust everyone on that list,” Jasmine said, frowning. “Two thirds of them, in fact.”

Tallie waved her off. “Pfft, this is the Thieves’ Guild. It’s not about trust, it’s about mutual interest. They all know we can be useful—we’re good people know!”

“Also,” Darius said thoughtfully, “we were involved in wrecking two very expensive carriages belonging to a couple of those.”

“I’m sure they will forgive us!”

All four turned to stare at the person who had just plunked a tray down next to them. Layla gazed challengingly back, wearing a simple and practical dress for the first time since they had met—with no jewelry or makeup, even.

“You can all just wipe those fish-like expressions right off your faces,” she declared, spearing a bite of her own fish. “Especially you, Darius. You surely didn’t think I was just going to toddle off back to my personal hell under Father’s increasingly heavy thumb where you so blithely left me, did you?”

“Uh, Lady Layla,” Jasmine began carefully.

“Ah, ah, ah!” Layla wagged a finger at her, smirking. “There will be none of that lady nonsense, understand? After all, I have it on good authority that we Eserites don’t have the highest opinion of the nobility. Really, putting on airs as they do. Just who do they think they are?”

“Kid,” Tallie said more bluntly, “no. This is a bad idea. Someone is gonna break your goddamn legs within a week.”

“Well, I’m not saying I necessarily will succeed all the way to full membership,” Layla replied, shrugging. “But I’m sure the education itself will be valuable, and in the meantime it’s something to do. Something which does not involve going home. And we make a good team, do we not? You lot can show me the ropes, and I’m sure we’ll be getting into and out of just all sorts of exciting scrapes in no time at all!”

She tucked the bite of fish delicately into her mouth and chewed smugly, clearly unperturbed by their expressions of dismay. Her own expression quickly began to wilt, however, and for decidedly different reasons, as she announced after finally swallowing.

“Eugh,” Layla said, grimacing down at her plate. “This is awful.”

“Yeah,” Darius agreed, still staring at her in something akin to horror. “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”


The shadows were lengthening over the prairie when the Sheriff of Port Nonsense finally headed home for the day. Aside from its amusing name, it was a frontier village much like all its kind—a small patch of streets surrounded by outlying farms and cottages, one of which was her own home. Some Imperial sheriffs preferred to house themselves in apartments attached to their offices, so as to be close to the action, but there’d been none of that to speak of in this entire region since the days of Horsebutt’s crusade. Even the Cobalt Dawn had never struck this far south, and their annihilation seemed to have deterred any other elves or centaurs from leaving the Golden Sea, a mile or so to the northwest. As such, the Sheriff kept herself in the small house a good twenty minutes’ ride from town which she and her husband had bought. There she would stay, at the very least, until her remaining child was grown enough to leave home.

Rosalind Schwartz pulled her mare up just outside the gate to her own yard, studying the unusual scene unfolding there under the orange sunset. Her daughter’s presence was typical enough; Melody wasn’t one to stay indoors, or to stay still at all, and as usual had managed to get herself thoroughly dusty and inflicted a fresh hole on the already-patched knee of her trousers. This time, though, she’d had help.

It had been a good while since the Schwartz home had been visited by a Silver Legionnaire, and this one was a more unusual sight than most.

“Footwork!” the woman said, grinning indulgently at the teenager, bracing her own feet to demonstrate and extending her sword forward. “It all starts with how you stand. Stop that flailing around, an enemy could knock you off your feet with a good sneeze if you can’t balance properly in action.”

She wore a sergeant’s stripes on her shoulder, and was an elf—a black-haired elf. Rosalind had lived here long enough to know what that meant, though she’d never suspected one of them had joined the Legions, of all things. The elf, of course, had to have heard her coming, but for the moment kept her attention on the still-oblivious Melody.

“That’s so boring,” the girl whined, brandishing the stick she was using for a mock sword. “Come on, swords! Battle! Action! How can you—”

“Because the fundamentals are how you survive the battles and action,” the Legionnaire said dryly, sheathing her weapon. “Something tells me this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about it, either.”

“Yeah, it’s even more boring when Ma does it.” Melody moodily swiped at imaginary foes with her stick. “I’m gonna enlist as soon as I’m old enough, Ma said I could. I just wanna have some adventures before I have to settle down and get all stiff and boring.”

“Military service doesn’t have a lot to do with adventure,” the sergeant replied with an indulgent smile, “though ironically, if you go into it thinking that, a stint in the Legions might be exactly what you need. Probably not what you wanted, though.”

Lucy picked that moment to snort loudly and shake her mane, irked at standing around out here when she had her stall and bucket of oats to look forward to at the end of a long day. Melody whirled, nearly overbalancing (and underscoring her visitor’s earlier point), to grin at her mother.

“Ma! Hi! We’ve got a guest!”

“So I see,” Rosalind replied, nodding at the soldier, who had turned to face her and now saluted. “Can’t say I was expecting this. I’m Sheriff Schwartz. What can I do for you, Segeant…?”

“Locke,” she replied. “Squad 391. Don’t worry, it’s not Legion business.”

“Wasn’t especially worried,” Rosalind replied, raising an eyebrow at the salute; she was discharged years hence, and anyway had been a sergeant herself. “Seeing as how the Legions have no business with me anymore. That wouldn’t be Principia Locke, by any chance?”

“Ah,” the elf replied with a wry grin, “I see my reputation precedes me.”

“She says she grew up right over there in the grove!” Melody offered brightly.

“Mm hm, so I’ve heard,” said Rosalind. “I don’t get over to visit the elves very often, myself, but I do find reason every now and again. Enough times to have heard their opinion of you a time or two…Sergeant.” She slowly raised her chin, studying the elf down her nose. “I have to say, the sight of you in that armor is very… Incongruous, that’s the word. A more suspicious person might wonder where you came by it.”

“Mother!” Melody protested, appalled.

“It’s all right,” Principia said with a grin. “Yeah, I’m well aware what you’d have heard from those rigid old trees in the grove. I probably won’t be around long enough for it to matter, but you can check up on me if you are so inclined, Sheriff. I’m with the Third, currently stationed in Tiraas; my captain is Shahdi Dijanerad. Anyhow, this is a personal visit. I was actually a friend of your husband.”

“You knew Dad?” Melody exclaimed.

“I did.” Principia turned to her and nodded. “Anton was a fine man and a good friend; I was very sorry to hear he had passed. Sorrier still that I didn’t hear of it until very recently. We’d fallen out of touch.”

“Interesting,” Roslind said quietly, patting Lucy when the mare snorted again and stomped a hoof in annoyance. “Anton never mentioned you. Not once. You seem like a peculiar thing to just forget about.”

“Yeah,” the elf replied with a sigh. “He was a great one for not mentioning things. I happened to run into your son Herschel in Tiraas this last week, which marked the first time I ever heard that Anton had a family. I never even knew he was married.”

“I see,” Rosalind stated flatly, stiffening in her saddle. “And is there…a particular reason that fact is relevant?”

Principia met her gaze directly, but sighed again. “Yes. It is. You and I need to have a long, awkward conversation, woman to woman.”

The Sheriff studied her guest in silence for a moment before speaking—to her wide-eyed daughter, not Locke. “Melody, it’s getting late, and Marjorie’s still laid up with that ankle. Go help her bring the sheep in.”

“But Ma—” Melody’s protest cut off instantly when Rosalind shifted her head to give her a look. “…yes’m.”

The teenager flounced out of the yard, shutting the gate harder than was called for, and stalked off down the road toward the neighbor’s property, just visible in the near distance. Neither woman spoke again until she was well out of earshot.

“I’ve had years to come to terms with life,” Rosalind said finally. “It’s been hard without Anton, but I stitched myself back together. And it’s not as if I didn’t know he was an imperfect man, or had my ideas about how some of his…adventures went. But that’s all history. Before you say anything else, I want you to think very carefully about what you came here to talk about. Be sure it’s something that needs to be dragged up again. Because if it’s not, and you drag it… I’m not shy about facing hard facts if I need to, but I’d just as soon not dig up the past for no good reason.”

“There’s good reason,” Principia said, her expression dead serious. “I haven’t said anything about this to Herschel, because… Well, I consider it your prerogative. You’ll know best how to raise the matter with the kids, and this is all outside my realm of experience.” She grimaced. “This is not about reminiscing, though, and it’s not just about family. There are serious, practical reasons Herschel and Melody will need to know about their sister.”

Rosalind closed her eyes for a moment, drawing in a steadying breath, then opened them and swung down from the saddle.

“C’mon into the barn,” she said shortly. “I’ve a horse to look after and evening chores to see to. You can help while you talk.” She turned her back on the elf, leading Lucy away. “Apparently, it’s the least you can do.”


Daksh sat on the pier, gazing out to sea as the sunset faded over the mountains behind Puna Dara. He had been there for over two hours when the weirdo came and sat down beside him.

After nearly a full minute of silence, he finally shifted his head to glance at his new companion, who was attired in an all-concealing robe of brown sackcloth, tightly closed over his chest. As if the deep cowl weren’t enough to conceal his identity, he had a coarse cloth scarf covering his neck and face below the eyes. His exposed hands were tightly bound in bandages.

In Puna Dara’s climate, the outfit was ridiculous to the point of suicide, even now with the heat of the day beginning to dissipate.

“Do you want to talk about it?” the newcomer said in a deep voice muffled by his absurd mask.

“Why?” Daksh asked without thinking.

The robed figure heaved slightly in what Daksh only realized a moment later was a shrug. “It can help.”

He returned his stare to the darkening horizon. Somehow, even this absurdity did not make much of an impression. “It doesn’t matter.”

“That’s the same as saying you don’t matter.”

Daksh actually laughed, bitterly. “Clearly, I do not matter. Not to my daughters, who chase me away from my own house. Not to my son Rasha, who disappeared to Tiraas to become a thief. I certainly don’t matter to any of those who used to buy my fish.”

“Is something wrong with your fish?”

“They are Naphthene’s fish now, not mine. My boat sank.” Daksh caught himself, then shook his head. “No, that is not truthful. I sank my boat. I was drunk. My family’s livelihood… No, I do not matter. Not even to me.”

There was silence for a while longer before the stranger spoke again.

“Would you like to?”

Daksh heaved a short sigh. “Ugh. Which cult are you recruiting for?”

The man’s laugh was a hoarse rasp, with a strange undertone like metal grinding on stone. The odd sound finally drew Daksh’s full attention.

“Perhaps there is a better question,” the man said. “Regardless of what…cult, or whatever else I may represent. If you could matter. If you could be strong. Fearless. Powerful. Invincible. What would that be worth to you?”

“You are mad,” Daksh said matter-of-factly.

“I may well be,” the hooded figure agreed, nodding. “My question remains.”

“If you could do this?” He shrugged. “You can’t, but if you could? Anything but my soul. That is all I have anyway, now, so it seems I have nothing to barter. Which makes two of us.”

“You are so wrong.” The robed figure abruptly stood, grabbed his coarse garment at the throat, and tugged firmly, dragging the enveloping layers of cloth from him in one improbably powerful sweep. Daksh shied away from his sudden movement, and then found himself gazing up at the man in awe.

He now wore only his arm bindings and a simple wrap around his groin, exposing the metal which partially covered him. His entire right arm was lengths of copper and steel, slightly twisted as if they had been repurposed from scrap, bound together with hinges and springs—and yet, below the wrappings on his hand, his fingers seemed to be normal flesh. Metal was his left leg from the knee down, and fragments of scrap clustered on the skin of his right like barnacles, as if peeking through from structures beneath the skin. From the artificial joint of his right shoulder, irregular lengths of scrap metal crawled across his chest, forming a very rough triangle whose tip covered his heart, over which a battered compass with a green glass casing sat.

Half his face was covered in copper plates and brass wires, including his left eye, which was a small blue fairy lamp.

“You, my friend, are not dead,” the half-metal man proclaimed, grinning exuberantly and exposing—unsurprisingly—iron teeth. “And that alone means you have much to offer. You are still a man. You still matter. You are worth preserving!”

He leaned forward, holding out the wrapped hand of his metal right arm.

“But you can always become…more.”

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11 – 37

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

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

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

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

“Uh…what?” Ross asked intelligently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rumor,” Glory said sharply.

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

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

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

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

“Is there anything else?” Glory asked pointedly.

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

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

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

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

“Who the shit is this?” Casethin demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn good play,” Vandro said admiringly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nambini at Traisis Ford.”

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

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

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

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

“What idea?” Tallie exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Touch him and I’ll kill you.”

Total silence fell.

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

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

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

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

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

“Unbelievable.”

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

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

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

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

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

Basra cleared her throat. “Allow me to—”

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

Principia cleared her throat. “There are—”

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

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

“…yes, ma’am.”

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Shut your yap!” Casey hissed back.

“All yaps shut!” Ephanie snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

Schwartz’s jaw dropped.

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

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

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

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

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

“Aiee,” he squeaked.

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

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

Meesie chirped smugly.

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

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

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

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

Trissiny turned to give her a long, careful look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11 – 24

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At the brisk rap on her office door, Style shouted “What?!”

Jasmine slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. “Sorry to interrupt your evening paperwork, but from what I hear this is basically the only time you use this room.”

Style snorted and shoved a sheet of parchment to the side of her small desk. “Well, you got that right. Goddamn pen-jockeying. Interrupting this bullshit is a quick way back into my good graces. What do you need?”

“Well, this may seem a little awkward,” Jasmine said, touching the side of her face, “but I need you to punch me. I, uh, suppose you don’t hear that one very often.”

“You might be surprised,” the enforcer grunted. “Mostly from former bedmates asking for kinky shit that does not do it for me. I’m assuming that’s not what this is about.”

Jasmine grimaced, a faint blush darkening her cheeks. “Uh, no. It’s just, I had to use divine magic a little bit ago, and in that quantity it tends to naturally heal things. Mesmer said the bruises were supposed to stay as some kind of object lesson…”

“Fucking Mesmer.” Style rolled her eyes. “There’s a reason he’s neither an enforcer nor in charge. Sure, fine, in certain very rare circumstances, I can see making someone keep a minor injury as a disciplinary measure, but usually anybody who’s causing that much trouble would be booted out of here anyway. No, Jasmine, I don’t find it serves any practical purpose to have people walking around all gimped up. I thought you still had a bashed face because you were too stubborn to have him fix it. Nah, you’re fine.”

“Really.” Jasmine frowned, then shrugged, reaching for the door handle. “All right, then. Frankly, after that scene tonight I thought it made perfect sense. Well, not sense, but it was consistent with the picture I was starting to see of this place.”

“Cos you didn’t think about what you were seeing,” Style retorted.

“Well, it’s pretty clear you keep control through brute force.”

“And that is exactly what I’m talking about,” Style stated flatly, pointing at her with a pen. She then stared at the utensil as if surprised to find herself holding it, and dropped it onto the desk before continuing. “Nobody keeps control through brute force; that’s not how brute force works. Fear is always better than force; respect is better than fear. You have to use a careful combination of all three; they have an interesting interrelationship. You’re new, you’ll learn more about it. But no, Jasmine, I don’t go around punching everybody who needs to be put in line. Or even most of them.”

“Oh?” Jasmine kept one hand on the door handle, but so far made no move to turn it.

“A good enforcer can’t afford to be a one-trick pony. It’s all about the situation, and the people involved. There’s no magic formula that works all the time. All right, let’s consider you and your little group of friends, they’ll make a passable case in point. Now Tallie and Darius I will smack when they need correcting—and occasionally more than smack, if they start doing horseshit like assaulting full Guild members. Those two are talkers; engaging them verbally is just asking for more hijinks and throwing away the opportunity to teach a lesson. What they need when they’re screwing up is a reminder that their bullshit can have the kind of consequences that no silver tongue can escape from. Hopefully, after no more than a couple more repetitions, the lesson will start sinking in and they’ll toe the line without needing more reminders. If they don’t have that much basic innate intelligence, they’ve got no place here. Rasha…” She paused and shook her head. “I’m a little worried about that kid. Fragile people don’t do well in this place. But some of our best have started out that way. He’s one who needs encouragement more than correction. Plus, he’s a listener and a thinker, so explaining what he does wrong will do a lot more than belaboring the point. Likewise Ross, without the fragility.”

“But you’re comfortable smacking me around to make a point,” Jasmine said, finally taking her hand off the door and folding her arms.

“In point of fact, no.” Style mimicked the posture, leaning back in her chair. “That dust-up tonight wasn’t about discipline, it was about you directly and publicly attacking my authority. No, Jasmine, you’re not afraid of pain, and even if you were, you’re not motivated by fear. Roughing up brave people is counterproductive; it makes ’em feel all righteous, when an enforcer’s job is to make someone understand that challenging us is a mistake. Believe me, the Guild hasn’t prospered for thousands of years without knowing how to deal with Avenists. So no, Jasmine, if you will just refrain from creating scenarios where I have to fucking land on you, I’ll look forward to never again laying so much as a fingertip on your dainty little derriere.”

“Hm.” Jasmine frowned, but offered no challenge to her reasoning.

“Moving on,” said Style, “wanna tell me why you were throwing around so much magic you accidentally healed yourself?”

“Oh.” Jasmine sighed. “Well, the truth is, I was pummeling and then threatening Grip. I guess that probably changes your stance on the subject of punching me, huh.”

“There you go, making assumptions again,” Style snorted. “Rumor is an intel woman whose default state is barely sober enough to stand; there’s no good reason for any Guild member to be taking swings at her, least of all an apprentice. Grip is another matter. I know yours is an unusual situation, and I fucking damn well know what she’s like. Without specifics, I could believe either of you being at fault there. I’m still in suspense, by the way.”

“Well, Grip wanted me to be her apprentice.”

“And this led somehow to you going full paladin on her ass. You got a real way with people, kid.”

Jasmine scowled at her and snorted, but continued. “She was blackmailing me. Grip figured out who I am and said she would spill the story if I didn’t agree to be her apprentice. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do about her for a few days; I settled for…brute force. It seemed like that was something she would understand, at least.”

“Hn,” Style grunted. “That’s some roundabout reasoning, even for her. Grip likes her plans complex, but… Well, watch yourself. People who assume they’re done with Grip have a tendency to learn otherwise, usually about when they get comfortable thinking it’s over.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Jasmine said with a sigh, reaching for the door again.

“Hang on,” Style ordered. “I agree that you entering a formal relationship with Grip may not be the best idea, but she is someone you, in particular, could stand to learn from. I’ve been meaning to discuss this with you, anyway. So far, Jasmine, you’ve been showing all the markings of a really talented enforcer in training. I mean, aside from your general social obtuseness, but that we can fix over the course of an apprenticeship. The major exception I see is this tendency you have to play the hero.”

“Well—”

“The thing about enforcers,” Style barreled on, “is that how much damage one is able to inflict ends up being less important than how threatening one seems. In your case, the very thing that made you interesting to Glory is a handicap. You’re so…well-behaved. Now, if you were a beefy dude like Ross, that would be absolutely ideal. Big scary guys who speak softly and mind their manners are exactly the right kind of intimidating; they can go places that shady thugs aren’t welcome, and don’t lose any of their looming menace factor in the process. You, though, are a pretty little blond slip of a girl—like Grip. And while Grip is a terrifying piece of work, you are not. Difference is, she has worked hard to become one.” She leveled a finger at Jasmine. “That is the distinction. Refrain from going off on a feminist rant about this, but the fact is, in the enforcer business, an attractive woman has to be three times as scary as a male counterpart to be taken as seriously. That’s just the way people perceive others. That means you have to build an aspect and a reputation to back up your threats, unless you want to have to break every goddamn kneecap you encounter. If you intend to keep going on the path you’ve apparently chosen, you’re going to have to either develop a cruel streak, or very convincingly pretend you have one.”

“That isn’t the path I chose!” Jasmine burst out. “That’s the entire point of me being here! I do not need the Guild’s help to learn how to fight or threaten people. I’m trying to be subtler.”

“Well, you’re doing a shitty job,” Style said bluntly. “You wanna be a con artist? Fine, do that. But do it; find someone who’ll coach you and start showing progress—fast. You haven’t done anything in that direction that I’m aware of beyond some cursory practice in picking locks and pockets. Right now you’re between the approach you claim to want and haven’t even looked at, and the one you’re actually good at and are afraid to pursue. Your trainers and I can help you build skills in either direction—or hell, both. But we’re not gonna choose for you, wouldn’t even if we could. Dithering is not acceptable.”

“Well, but.” Jasmine heaved an irritated sigh. “It’s not as if I’m a typical apprentice, right? My purpose here isn’t exactly to aim for full membership—”

“Then you can fuck off out of my Guild,” Style snapped. “I was extremely clear with you up front. No special treatment. You’re an apprentice exactly like all the rest. Your purpose is to work toward becoming a productive and valuable member of this Guild, or you can get yourself the hell out of it; we’re not providing room and board for every directionless teenager in Tiraas, here. I do not accept excuses or half-measures. You’re not on notice, kid; like I said, you show real promise as an enforcer. But I will be watching you, and unless you start really pursuing that potential, or other potential, you will be warned. From there it’s a short slide to the door hitting your ass on the way out. This isn’t a fucking summer camp.”

“I see,” Jasmine said quietly. “Then that’s…something to think about.”

“Yeah,” Style agreed, staring flatly at her. “Go to bed, Jasmine. Plenty of exciting new ways for you to fuck up tomorrow, but right now I think we’ve all had about enough.”


“Good evening, your Grace!” Principia said with exuberant good cheer. “What a surprise to find you working here so late. The candle burns at both ends, eh?”

“Locke,” Syrinx replied evenly after pausing a moment outside her office to study the Legionnaire. “And of course, you have no business in this part of the temple at this or any hour. Spit it out, I’ve even less patience for your idiocy than I have time for it.”

“So hostile,” Principia said brightly, falling into step beside the Bishop as she strode away down the hall. It was an upper level of the Temple, containing little but administrative offices, and at this hour was practically deserted; even the fairly lamps were dimmed. No one else appeared to be in the vicinity. “Very well, to the point. Those disruptors originated in Veilgrad, and turned up here in the hands of the Thieves’ Guild. It’s very likely they passed through the possession of the Guild underboss there, an Imperial Army corporal named Timms. Her tag is Smiler, if that helps. I can’t leave the city except on specific business so I can’t exactly go ask her; I think this dovetails more with your end of the investigation, anyway.

“Now, if Bishop Darling is playing coy about these things, it’s possible he doesn’t know anything and is trying to save face, but otherwise… The downside of his genius for cultivating contacts everywhere in Tiraas is that it leaves a lot of openings to track who he’s been talking to, and about what. What you need are access points, and luckily, there are some who are both links in his network and somewhat inherently friendly to Avenists.” She held up a small envelope, smiling slyly. “Those, I can direct you to. It would be personally awkward for me to be chasing the Bishop around that way, but if you’re caught doing it, I assume that will just be business as usual within the Church.”

Basra came to a stop, turning to face her and resting one hand casually on the hilt of her sword. She glanced fleetingly at the envelope, but made no move to reach for it. “What are you doing, Locke?”

“Helping you,” Principia said sweetly. “As is no more and no less than my duty.”

“Right. So I’m to go threaten this Smiler person with exposure to gain her compliance, is that what you want?”

“Oh, I should be so lucky,” Principia said with a grin. “I know very well you’re too intelligent to threaten a Guild underboss, though. No, your specific approach is up to you, and the less I know of it, the better, but you’re a resourceful woman. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”

“I don’t suppose you plan to be so accommodating as to tell me the catch.”

“The catch is that you’ll actually be holding up your end of this job, and thus keeping yourself around and in the High Commander’s good graces. If I thought failing to turn up anything useful would get your butt booted back to Viridill, matters would be very different.” Principia shrugged. “But, it is what it is. All things being equal, I think this better serves me in the long run, even if it does result in continuing to have to put up with you.”

“You’ve developed an interesting way of addressing your superiors, Sergeant,” Basra said, though her tone remained calm and mildly inquisitive.

“Oh, certainly, go tell Rouvad I was mean to you.” Principia grinned. “I think you’re forgetting that the last time we shared this temple was before I proved myself valuable and you proved yourself crazy. Look, we can play nicely in front of the bronze, but we both know that you’re a sadistic monster and I’m a rebellious pain in the ass, and after that little business of you trying to murder my whole squad, prospects of us actually getting along are pretty much nil. But I’ve worked with people I hated a lot more than you. I see no reason we can’t work something out, here.”

“This is very slightly entertaining, but unless a reason emerges when I should bother myself with this and with you, Locke, I have much better things to do.”

“You know the reason very well.” The insouciant smile faded from Principia’s face. “In fact, you just hit it exactly. You and I have much better things to do than feud. When it comes down to it, we aren’t really in competition. Our objectives are similar, yes, but at the end of the day, I’m rank-and-file with an acknowledged knack for moving among unscrupulous types, while you are a political presence in this city’s halls of power. Neither of us could function in one another’s wheelhouse. The removal of one or the other would just be a lost asset for the Sisterhood, and us butting heads is likewise.”

“Ah, yes,” Syrinx drawled, lifting an eyebrow. “Here comes your vaunted commitment to the greater good.”

“I’m committed to my own best interests, exactly the same as you,” Principia retorted bluntly. “The difference is I’m at least capable of valuing other things, as well. I have goals and a career here, and dealing with your scheming on top of the rest of it is a headache I can do without. Do you need to find out how good I am at scheming before you realize how mutual our relationship is?”

“Our relationship, huh,” Basra said sardonically, brushing off the implied threat. “I see no reason to believe you are either a threat or a use to me.”

“Don’t you?” The smile which crept across Locke’s face was distinctly catlike. “Well, after all, we’ve gone head-to-head once already. You had the element of surprise and vastly superior positioning, and I still whipped you. Do you really wanna try it again without those advantages, Basra?”

They stared at each other, Principia with that sly smile, Basra without expression.

“Well,” the Bishop said at last, “Timms, was it? Also known as Smiler? I suppose I should be so lucky as to hope you’d do anything so rashly aggressive as try to trip me into a trap.”

“I shall take that as an acknowledgment of my base point,” Principia said, her face instantly shifting back to an innocently cheerful look. “Then I shall bid you good evening, your Grace, and I’m sure we’ll have a more fruitful discussion when you’ve seen the utility of my help. Don’t forget your notes!” Again, she proffered the envelope.

“No.”

Principia raised her eyebrows. “No? No, what?”

“You’re a long way from earning my trust, Locke,” Basra said coldly. “And however you may choose to dress it up, in the end, that’s what you’re trying to do. Making yourself minimally useful according to your assigned duties isn’t going to cut it. I’ll tell you what. I will follow up on this lead, and if you have the basic self-control not to try to screw me over… We’ll talk further. About this job, and perhaps about what I can do for you beyond the bounds of your duties. And what I’ll expect you to do for me in exchange.”

She smirked faintly, then turned on her heel and strode off down the hall.

Principia stood behind her, watching her go with the slightly puzzled expression she had adopted during Basra’s last few sentences. Only when the Bishop was around the corner did she permit herself a faint half-smile, and tucked the envelope back into her belt pouch.


“Dunno, I was asleep before he came back,” Darius said absently, focusing on his breakfast.

“I don’t think the did come back,” Tallie said with a worried frown, pushing scrambled eggs around her plate. “I poked my head on on his bunk and it didn’t look slept in.”

“Rasha’s very neat about his space,” Jasmine offered. “My best friend back home is like that; she’s Punaji, too. Something about being on ships…”

“Yeah, but he’s not an early riser.” Tallie heaved a sigh, frowning deeply. “I don’t know, guys. Where could he have gone?”

“He’s in the Guild,” said Ross. “Nobody’d hurt him here.”

“But what if he left?”

“Why would he leave?” Darius demanded in exasperation. “It was the middle of the night and psycho dwarves are after us. Rasha wouldn’t have gone outside.”

“Don’t you care at all?” Tallie demanded, turning on him.

“Course I care,” he said with a shrug that belied his claim, scooping up another forkful of fried potatoes. “But I’m not ready to agree he’s in some kind of trouble. C’mon, you know Rasha, he’s got big thoughts for such a little guy. Always retreating into himself and staring moodily around. Yesterday was stressful for us all. Trust me, I’ve known people like him before. He’s not dumb enough to go out there and risk his safety. Probably just off somewhere thinking. He’ll come out when he feels like it. Like a cat.”

“He’s gonna miss breakfast,” Tallie muttered.

“We won’t let him starve,” Jasmine assured her, then turned to Darius with a frown. “Anyway, a little more concern would be appropriate. Just because he didn’t leave the Guild doesn’t mean this place is safe.”

“Nobody’s going to hurt apprentices here,” he scoffed.

“I am basically positive that’s not true,” she retorted. “Accredited thieves would probably not risk censure by being caught harming an apprentice. But let’s face it, these aren’t nice people. So far I’d say about half the ones I’ve met are good people, and most are only kind when they want something. If Rasha went off into some private corner around here…” She shook her head. “I don’t know. Something could have happened.”

Tallie slapped a palm on the table hard enough to make her silverware jump. “Damn it. I should’ve…”

“What?” Darius asked pointedly. “Tallie… I love that you care so much, but you’re not his mom. We can’t follow each other everywhere, and with all respect, Jas, I don’t think it’s wise to start assuming we’re in danger within the Guild itself. We need a safe haven, or we’ll all end up paranoid and crazy, and they really do protect apprentices here. C’mon, Ironeye could’ve probably disappeared us all good and proper, but she didn’t. Seriously, guys, I’m sure Rasha’s fine. If he hasn’t turned up by, say, dinner, then we should start to worry.”

“You afraid of the dark?” Ross asked.

Darius stared at him, blinking, then heaved a sigh and slowly set down his fork. “All right, what the fuck are you on about now?”

“Just that fear of the dark isn’t rational,” Ross said. “So rational arguments against it don’t work. It’s primal. Fear of the unknown, of what might be in the dark. Knowing there’s nothing out there does nothing for you. ‘swhy everyone has trouble sleeping after hearing a scary story.”

“Ross,” Tallie exclaimed. “We’re talking about Rasha!”

“Yeah, and something tells me we still are,” Darius said dryly. “This is one of those Vesker metaphors. They always draw ’em out more than is necessary.”

“Not wrong about that,” Ross agreed with a shrug. “Point is, our friend is missing an’ apparently didn’t come to bed last night. It’s fine to be worried. It’d be weird not to be worried. Don’t argue her out of worrying. Won’t work.”

“What, so I can’t offer comfort to someone who’s upset?” Darius retorted, scowling. “I don’t see how that’s any better.”

“This is incredible,” Tallie said to Jasmine. “We’re discussing the actual problem and these two are arguing about their feelings. When did we stop being the girls in this group?”

“Oi!” Darius protested. Jasmine just rolled her eyes and had another bite of eggs.

“Good morning.”

The soft greeting was punctuated by the arrival of a stack of wooden discs on the table beside them. All four stared incredulously up at Gimmick, who gave them a serene little smile.

“These are portable divination bafflers, keyed specifically to disrupt spells of location. It may be possible for a skilled scryer to discern details about your status even with them, and they will do nothing to counter fairy magic, but so long as you each keep one on your person, you should become un-trackable via arcane scrying by a mage or enchanter of nominal skill.”

“Nominal skill,” Tallie said blankly.

“There is, as they say, always a bigger fish, but I doubt you have antagonized the sort of archmage who can remotely neutralize these enchantments.” Saduko’s smile widened. “Your problems would be far greater were it so. These are passive charms and their power consumption is minimal, but they do consume energy. The enchantment is designed to absorb excess energy from the environment to replenish itself, which is abundant in Tiraas, but if your situation has not been resolved within six weeks, they will probably need to be recharged. Any professional enchanter will do this for a small fee.”

“I know how to recharge basic enchantments,” said Jasmine, staring up at her. “Just have to buy the dust…”

“Of course you do,” Tallie said with a sigh. “Excuse me, but I don’t believe we’d accepted Mr. Vandro’s offer.”

“Quite,” Saduko said placidly. “Webs has reconsidered his position and feels he was being unnecessarily mercenary with you. You may consider these a gift, delivered with his compliments and hopes for a fruitful future relationship.”

“Okay,” Darius said with a sigh, “what’s his angle?”

“I fear I cannot help you there,” she replied, shrugging. “I am frequently baffled by Mr. Vandro’s machinations. My skill set is specific and limited, and he employed me strictly in that capacity.”

“That was never his game,” Tallie said, slumping forward and leaning her forehead into her hand. The elbow she planted on the table narrowly missed her plate. “Damn it… It’s like the Boss said, just having us seen getting help from him places us in his camp, at least in everybody’s minds. And with everybody treating us like we’re Webs’s accomplices, our options for other supporters narrow until it’s basically true. Isn’t that right?” she demanded, lifting her head to look accusingly at Saduko.

The enchantress shrugged again. “Your reasoning seems solid, though such matters are above my head. Being voluntarily and deliberately in Webs’s camp, as you call it, I have never had to think in these terms. That is for the best. I prefer to leave such convoluted planning to him.”

“Why, that sneaky son of a bitch,” Darius said, sounding more impressed than annoyed.

“Well, this is shaping up to be a great day,” Tallie muttered, reaching for the stack. “And I was just thinking we have a prospect here that didn’t involve taking Webs’s help. I mean, our new buddy Schwartz is in the same boat as the rest of us, and he’s an acolyte of the actual goddess of magic. Surely he could hook us up with some kind of deal on anti-tracking charms…”

“And that’s why Gimmick had to come along so early to hand these off,” Darius said cheerily. “So Webs can get his hooks into us before we have the chance to realize that and act on it. Clever bastard!”

“Stop sounding so happy about it!” Tallie barked.

“Tallie, hon, we’ve been outmaneuvered. And that really shouldn’t surprise anybody, since this guy’s apparently been playing the game longer than we’ve collectively been alive.”

“Not quite that long,” Saduko said with amusement.

“Yeah, well, my point is, you can’t take these things personally.”

“Oh, just watch me,” Tallie said acidly.

“What I mean,” Darius added, “is you shouldn’t take it personally. It’s a game, at least in the minds of the people who tend to win it. You gotta stay loose, keep yourself detached. It’s the only way to keep your head cool enough to compete.”

She sighed heavily. “Someday, I’m gonna insist on detailed backstories from some of you.”

Darius grinned and waggled his eyebrows at her. “Your place or mine?”

Saduko cleared her throat as Tallie reached for her fork, her glare at Darius suggesting she didn’t have eating in mind. “Those bafflers will function so long as they are on your person, but it is best as a rule to conceal them inside your clothes. If you are being tracked by a mage, and said mage gains a line of sight to them, he or she may be able to disrupt them permanently that way.”

“So noted,” Jasmine said quickly, reaching for the stack. “And…ah, good, there are five. We’ll make sure Rasha gets his. Thank you, Gimmick.”

“Ah, yes, that is the other matter,” Saduko continued. “Mr. Vandro pays well to be appraised of any interesting events transpiring in the city, and has just learned of one he felt would be relevant to you. Your friend Rasha is currently in an Imperial jail for assault.”

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11 – 14

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“Ah, Basra. Close the door, please.”

Basra paused just inside the office to pull the door shut as ordered, then glanced with a carefully neutral expression at Principia, who was standing at attention near the High Commander’s desk, before proceeding the rest of the way forward.

“Good morning, Commander. I hope I haven’t kept you waiting?”

“Not at all, Locke only just got arrived herself,” Rouvad said briskly. “Apologies for depriving you of breakfast, Sergeant, but the Bishop has business at the Church which won’t wait on us. This won’t be a long meeting.”

“My schedule is currently elastic, ma’am,” Principia replied crisply. “Obviously her Grace’s time is more valuable.”

“Indeed. Then let’s be about this before anyone is made late for anything.” Rouvad folded her hands atop the desk, shifting her body slightly to face Basra directly. “I called you both here for a progress report on your shared project. Basra, what do you have?”

“Very little, at this juncture,” Basra replied with the faintest frown. “My task is political in nature and rather sensitive; unraveling these webs takes time.”

“Naturally,” Rouvad acknowledged with a nod. “Neither of you are here to be pressured, I simply wish to remain in the loop with all details. What have you managed so far?”

“I have, of course, approached Bishop Darling to ask about those devices.” Basra twisted her mouth in a slight grimace. “He was…well, in a word, himself.”

Both the other women present nodded in immediate understanding.

“Based on our conversation,” Basra continued, “I am reasonably sure he is the one who arranged for the presence of both those staves and the tip that brought the Legion’s intervention. At least, he hinted in that direction. I should stipulate, here, that I am making assumptions. Darling is capable of being extremely underhanded indeed. My conclusions are based on our relationship; we work well together and have built up a degree of trust, which I don’t believe he would squander without cause. Based upon broad hints he has dropped, I think that Darling, personally, considers it a matter of the greater good to have those devices known to the Sisterhood, and that there are factional issues within the Thieves’ Guild at work which restrain him from working more openly with us.”

“Hm.” Rouvad narrowed her eyes slightly in thought. “How do you plan to proceed?”

“As I have, in part. He seems inclined to dole out further tidbits, but I’m unwilling to be strung along with no other recourse. As yet I’ve no other ideas or avenues to pursue, and am considering carefully what else to try. It is, as I said, a very early stage in this investigation.”

“Of course,” Rouvad agreed. “That’s satisfactory progress for two days’ work, considering. Locke, can you shed any insight on a factional conflict within the Thieves’ Guild?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am. Factions within the Guild are transient things stirred up by the issues of the day, and I’ve been out of the loop far too long to know who’s who and what they’re after.”

“Mm. How quickly do you think you could find out?”

Principia blinked once, her own expression of surprise in an otherwise blank face. “…Commander, you’re talking about building a new reputation and a whole set of connections; thieves don’t just chitchat about sensitive business with people they’ve just met. To answer the question, years. But I wish it noted for the record that I consider the idea an abrogation of the understanding that I am not to be leveraged against the Guild, and would not comply if ordered.”

“Mm hm,” Basra murmured.

“Syrinx,” Rouvad said flatly, “she is not the only one whom I expect to remain civil, here. And she’s correct: that is, indeed, Legion policy and Sisterhood doctrine with regard to individuals who have affiliation with multiple cults. My apologies, Sergeant, it was a spur of the moment thought, not an order.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“In any case,” Rouvad continued, “if the Bishop has nothing else to add…? Very well. It is, as we’ve noted, quite early in this affair, Locke, but have you made any progress, either with the staves or tracing their origins?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied. “The weapons are called divine disruptors. They were created by a secret division of the Imperial Army at a secure spell lab in Veilgrad, which was damaged in the chaos event of a few months ago. Weapon prototypes were stolen by members of the chaos cult which caused the disaster, and then stolen from them by the Black Wreath, who were then ambushed and beaten by Duchess Malivette Dufresne, a vampire of one of the more dangerous lineages and the sitting Imperial Governor of Lower Stalwar Province. Dufresne returned most of the staves to the Empire, after suggesting her intention to deliver one or more to the Theives’ Guild for the express purpose of disseminating the spellwork in question and depriving the Imperial government of exclusive control of it. What occurred after that I have not ascertained, though it suggests in general terms how Bishop Darling came to be involved.

“In function, the weapons produce a burst of energy which neutralizes all forms of divine magic. Sister Eivery and I have not yet had time to test them under a variety of conditions, but we have ascertained that they immediately collapse a divine shield of normal strength, and when used on a Light-wielder, inhibit the subject’s ability to call upon divine magic. That effect fades after an hour, roughly. I have disassembled one of the staves, and believe I could build another from scratch, but liargold aside, these specimens are made almost entirely from cheap knock-off materials, largely because the genuine materials they suggest are prohibitively expensive. To proceed, ma’am, I will need either a substantial quantity of gold and rare crystals, or the assistance of an alchemist able to work with liargold.”

She stopped talking, and there was dead silence in the room. Rouvad and Syrinx both stared at her, wide-eyed.

“Locke,” the Commander said after a long moment, “how did you dig all that up so quickly?”

“I ascribe it to either immense good luck or Avei’s intervention, ma’am,” Principia replied. “One of the Guild apprentices we have been following happened to have been present at Veilgrad when these weapons first appeared.”

“Oh, Locke,” Basra murmured. “I do hope that doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means. Since we are well aware that Trissiny Avelea was present and involved in that mess…”

“Yes, your Grace,” Principia said calmly. “General Avelea has been most helpful. Her involvement is the only reason I am inclined to credit divine intervention; a paladin’s presence where coincidences start to appear is suggestive.”

“And just what were you doing talking to Trissiny Avelea?” Basra snapped.

“She summoned me,” Principia replied, shifting her eyes to Rouvad. “Given our respective ranks, I judged I had better respond immediately. For future reference, however, would you prefer I report any contact with the General, Commander? I wish to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Rouvad shook her head. “The condition of your enlistment was that you stay away from Avelea unless she reached out to you first. If she did, whatever you discuss is between you. However, I should clarify that you are not to pursue her attentions if she’s not inclined to talk further. Understood?”

“I wouldn’t, anyway, Commander. That’s no way to build a relationship with someone.”

“Locke, I don’t need to hear your opinions on interpersonal relations when I give you an order. You know what I need to hear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Exactly,” Rouvad said, staring pointedly at her. “Now, with regard to the matter at hand, did she summon you to talk specifically about these weapons?”

“No, ma’am, I asked about that. She wanted my advice on integrating Avenist and Eserite philosophies and succeeding in the Guild.”

“Hm,” the Commander mused. “Very well. I would castigate you for apparently firing one of those weapons at Eivery, but frankly, knowing her as I do, I’ll assume your presence was the only reason she didn’t test it on herself without supervision.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am.”

“Overall, impressive progress, Locke. How do you plan to proceed?”

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ve indicated my intentions with regard to the continuing reverse-enchantment of the weapons. While I personally am keeping a circumspect distance from both Trissiny and the Guild, Shahai has made contact with the group of apprentices we arrested and established the beginnings of a relationship, which we intend to leverage for further information as possible and appropriate. With regard to that, she reported the group were also approached by a group of dwarves with the same intent. Not to be racist, but dwarves were also apparently the intended buyers of the staves at the swap meet the Legion interrupted.”

“How can it possibly be racist to notice that both groups were dwarves?” Basra said disdainfully.

Principia’s armor rasped softly as she shrugged. “I didn’t want to imply that they all look alike. Both wore obscuring robes, which isn’t dwarven or anybody’s custom who isn’t trying to hide their identity.”

“Interesting,” said Rouvad. “Keep me appraised of any developments.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else to report?”

“Yes, ma’am. Among those arrested, but not involved with the Guild, was another individual whose presence was extremely fortuitous. He is a Salyrite, a fae magic specialist who provides helpfully indirect access to that cult’s resources; I am cultivating a relationship in part with an eye to developing that connection, since the Sisterhood has few personnel like Eivery trained for the kind of work I am doing. He also happens to be the son of an old friend of mine, who I was not aware had offspring. Name is Herschel Schwartz.”

Basra shifted her head very faintly, raising on eyebrow by a hair.

“Very well, you don’t really need my blessing to proceed with that,” said Rouvad. “Needless to say, you will be very careful with any plan which involves the College of Salyrene in this, but I understand the potential need.”

“Yes, ma’am. I do not intend to involve the College at all, but only available elements within it, to the extent that it can be done discreetly. But I raised the matter for another reason. Mr. Schwartz was present for Bishop Syrinx’s recent successes in Viridill and apparently part of her staff. He is now pursuing some kind of vendetta against her.”

Rouvad sighed and leaned back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. “Basra!”

“That’s a surprise to me,” Basra said in perfect calm. “Schwartz was imminently helpful to me for his magical expertise in dealing with elementals and other fae nonsense. I sent a glowing testimonial of his performance to his cult. I thought we parted on good terms.”

“Locke,” Rouvad said irritably, straightening back up. “why is this man now obsessed with the Bishop?”

“I would say ‘offended’ more than ‘obsessed,’ ma’am. And I didn’t ask.”

The Commander’s gaze sharpened. “You didn’t ask why this son of your acquaintance was chasing a vendetta against our Bishop?”

“Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”

“Denied. I have expressed myself clearly on the subject of infighting, Locke. You will keep a civil tongue in your head when employing it to, about, or near Bishop Syrinx. Answer the question.”

“Yes, ma’am. I consider his motivations secondary at best and probably not very interesting; what matters is that he cannot be allowed to do this. Quite apart from the need to shield our Bishop from outside interference, as someone with a personal interest in the boy’s continued health I would rather not see him pick a fight he is going to decisively lose.”

Rouvad’s stare shifted back to Basra. “And you have no idea why he would be irate with you?”

“I didn’t say I had no idea,” the Bishop replied with a shrug. “Schwartz was extremely useful, but he’s an academic and frankly a bit of a houseplant. Hand-holding him through various outdoor excursions was…trying. He also had developed an infatuation with my aide, Private Covrin. Since she was being exceedingly discreet with members of other cults at my request, due to the sensitivity of our work, she refrained from rebuking him as firmly as she otherwise might. Considering I was the reason for Covrin’s restraint, I took it upon myself to instruct him to leave her alone. And that not until I found him lurking outside her quarters at the Abbey; better he hear it from me than a Silver Legion patrol. They don’t do restraint when it comes to creepy guys harassing their own.” She shook her head. “I thought I was fair with the boy, and he didn’t seem excessively upset at the time. Though that may have just been embarrassment.”

“Is this Schwartz character a threat, do you think, Locke?”

“I hardly think so, ma’am,” Principia replied. “He has no stomach for violence, no inclination toward law-breaking, and no plan. He was hanging around an illegal swap meet in the hopes of striking up an acquaintance with Eserites who could teach him how to go about seeking revenge. That’s the kind of competence we’re talking about, here.”

“I concur with every part of the Sergeant’s assessment,” Basra said dryly. “Not a thing in this world frightens me less than the outrage of Herschel Schwartz.”

“I am cultivating Schwartz as a useful contact, as I said,” Principia continued. “I also mean to talk him down from this at the same time. This business with Covrin is news to me, though he mentioned her. This altogether strikes me as common enough behavior in a young man who lacked good female role models growing up. Some time spent around my squad will do him a world of good, I think.”

“All right, on the strength of both your recommendations,” Rouvad said darkly, “I’ll let that alone for now. But if for any reason your assessment changes in any way, Locke, you will immediately report it, both to me and to Bishop Syrinx.”

“Yes, ma’am. I have already told Herschel that if he goes near Bishop Syrinx with aggressive intent I’ll be taking the matter directly to his own cult.”

“Good; do that, too. What you do in your personal time, and with whom, is your own affair, but none of this is to come between you and your duties.”

“Of course, Commander.”

“Anything else, then?” She paused, glancing back and forth between them. “Very well. All things considered, ladies, good work; keep it up. Dismissed.”


Basra kept herself restrained all through the ride to the Cathedral and the walk through its halls to her office. The whole time, Jenell tried to be as invisible as possible; she could clearly see the storm coming. Being out of its path was probably not an option. She’d have to settle for not making herself its focus.

Her reprieve extended once they arrived; Basra immediately sent her to cancel her first appointment of the day. While Jenell ordinarily hated having to give bad news to the likes of Bishop Rastlin, especially when she couldn’t provide a satisfactory reason for it, today she relished the opportunity to be out from under Basra’s glowering eye for a little while. Even Rastlin’s displeasure was a relief. There wasn’t much he could actually do to her.

She desperately wanted to drag her feet and prolong the errand, but didn’t dare. Making Basra wait at the best of times was a quick way to the bad side of her temper; adding any kind of delay to her existing ire would be a disaster.

Basra’s office, very fortunately, was soundproof; the enchantment was standard on all the offices of Bishops and Church officials of any high rank. Covrin had standing permission to enter without knocking, which she did—then quickly slipped inside and shut the door before anybody happened to hear what sounded like a fight in progress.

The Bishop’s idea of décor was almost a caricature of Avenist standards. At her home, she liked her comforts lavish, but her space in the Cathedral was stark, spartan, and decorated exclusively with military hardware. The walls were hung with bladed and blunt weapons, shields bearing various devices, and locked display cases holding old-fashioned battlestaves. Jenell had worked with Basra long enough and accumulated enough trust to know which cases weren’t actually locked, and which staves still held a charge. In each of the room’s corners stood a suit of armor—a medieval cavalry knight’s, and three different Silver Legion sets from different eras—and by the fireplace was a training dummy on a slightly flexible pole.

This was the office’s second dummy since Basra had returned from Viridill. They did not enjoy long lives.

Despite her usual preference for sword combat, Basra was going at the thing bare-fisted, striking hard enough to draw small grunts, a bad sign. She was usually too tightly controlled for that. The little sounds she made were high-pitched and incongruously cute, a fact upon which Jenell had far too much sense to ever remark.

She placed herself by the door and stood at attention. Basra had not looked up to acknowledge her, but she knew the woman’s situational awareness was far too acute to have missed the opening and closing of the door.

Jenell didn’t have to wait long. Moments after her arrival, Basra brought the session to an end with a roundhouse kick that sent the dummy careening into the rack of practice weapons standing near it. The lot clattered to the floor, reinforcing the importance of the office’s soundproofing. Kicks like that weren’t part of the Eagle Style, and were in general not a smart thing to try against a competent opponent, or so Jenell had been told by her drill instructor in basic. She could believe it; Basra only did such things when she wanted to make a mess.

“That smug tree rat whore,” she snarled, beginning to pace up and down. Jenell managed not to wince; she’d really hoped the woman would have worked out most of her anger on the dummy. “Showboating little piece of grove trash! It’s not enough she has to show me up for results, when Rouvad is clearly testing us against each other. And she’s doing it by playing her own connections—to the Guild, and that damned paladin. No, then she has to taunt me with this business about Schwartz!”

Calm. Control. Jenell refused to react. She desperately wanted to know what Schwartz had to do with any of this, but instinct and experience warned that if she pulled that string she’d gain a black eye or two. Basra rarely struck her physically, and more rarely still in a way that left marks. When she felt such a lesson was necessary, though, her ability to heal minor wounds on the spot was extremely useful.

“Even Rouvad isn’t this blind,” Basra growled, stopping in her pacing and turning to stare across her office at the window behind her desk. “No… So that’s how it is, Farzida? Fine. Fine. I’m still twice the—three times the anything your pet elf is. Stack the deck all you want, I’ll still mop the floor with her scalp.” She drew in a deep breath, her shoulders swelling, and let it out slowly. Finally, some of the anger melted from her expression. It did not vanish completely, though, even as she smiled. “And yours, some day. Soon enough.”

Jenell kept silent, staring straight ahead, lest Basra happened to glance over and catch her watching. It had occurred to her before that some of the things Basra allowed her to overhear would get the Bishop severely rebuked at minimum… If she were fool enough to think that pitting her word against Basra’s would go in her favor. She didn’t know if this was a test of her loyalty, or merely of her restraint. For all that so much of her life focused around predicting and responding to Basra’s moods, so much of the woman’s thought process was opaque to her.

“Locke is only getting anywhere because she has connections,” Basra murmured, scowling intently into the distance, now. “I don’t know how she got in with those Eserite kids so quickly… That’s what I’ll need to undercut.”

At one time, Jenell had thought herself quite clever—cunning, even. Months under Basra’s authority had taught her what cunning was, and that hers didn’t compare; it was all she could do to proceed slowly with her research toward what she hoped would be her mentor’s unmaking without being caught. She’d never been sly enough to spot an opportunity like this, develop a plan, and take action, all on the spur of the moment.

Which was why it was fortunate she’d developed that plan already, and been watching intently for just such an opening.

“What if you just took over her connections?” she asked.

Basra shot her an irritated look. “Be quiet, you silly cow, I’m—” She broke off, staring blankly at Jenell.

Suddenly, Basra turned on her heel and strode across the room, straight for her. Jenell allowed her face to express alarm and backed up against the door. Most of the time she kept her self-control iron-clad, but she’d learned long since that Basra rather enjoyed seeing her afraid.

The Bishop didn’t stop until she was standing close enough that Jenell could feel her breath on her cheek.

“Jenell,” she murmured, “I do believe I owe you an apology.”

“Oh, um, I’m sure that’s not—”

“Hush.” Basra laid a finger over her lips. “That was an excellent suggestion you just had; exactly what I need. And a reminder of why I keep you around, which is certainly not for your filing skills or because you’re particularly good in bed.” Fingers lightly grazed that spot just above her hip where there was a small gap in the armor, and she shuddered. Basra’s lips quirked sideways in amusement. “That socialite’s animal cunning, though. You’re going to make a more than adequate politician someday, my dear.”

“Uh…thank you.”

“You’ll have to get rid of that stammer, of course,” Basra said dismissively, abruptly stepping away and beginning to pace again. “There is absolutely no reason for an intelligent person to make noises like ‘uh.’ You have got to be able to pass yourself off as an intelligent person, Jenell, or they’ll eat you alive out there. Honestly, how you managed without me to hold your hand is an ongoing mystery. It’s a damned shame about Elwick—but then, if you had the wit or the spine to stand up to me that way, you wouldn’t be benefiting from my patronage now.”

Jenell kept silent. Oddly, she wasn’t even particularly offended anymore. Of all the things she put up with, insults like this were commonplace and minor. It was a good sign, if anything; Basra didn’t talk this way when she was in a bad enough mood to do something that could actually hurt her.

“Locke’s connections,” the Bishop mused to herself as she paced. “She’s on the outs with the Guild, even Darling doesn’t like her. And I’d get nowhere with them. That’s neutral. Trissiny is untouchable, but the girl is both unformed and already deeply suspicious of Locke. If she’s reaching out to her… Have to put a stop to that. And those kids, now. What they need is friends and allies. The sort who haven’t thrown them in cells.”

She halted, turned to face her aide, and folded her hands behind her back, smiling pleasantly. Jenell experienced a small frisson of true fear.

“Jenell,” Basra said calmly, “I have a task for you.”

“What do you need, your Grace?”

“You’re going to find those kids Locke is cultivating, the Eserites, and befriend them. You have permission to act out of armor—in fact, it’s probably better if you do at least part of the time. They are to work for me, not for Principia Locke.”

“Ah, your Grace,” Jenell said nervously.

“What did I literally just finish saying to you about umms and uhhs? Shut up when I’m talking, it’s not as if you have anything useful to contribute, anyway. Make what use of those kids you can while getting them kindly disposed toward me. But your primary target is Trissiny Avelea. That’s the one I need most of all. She knows me as a helpful figure, she’s uncertain about Locke, and I need both those attitudes reinforced. Make it happen.”

“I’m… How should I approach them?”

“Must I do everything for you?” Basra said irritably. “Follow Locke’s squad, if you can’t think of anything better. They’re already working with the brats; they’ll lead you to wherever you can go to intercept them. And Avelea is your in, if you can’t manage to arrange one of your own. She’s a smart one—no Hand of Avei has ever shown the kind of initiative she’s taken, learning the Guild’s ways. It’s the next best thing to studying with the Black Wreath themselves. That girl may actually live to see her thirtieth birthday, and accomplish more than beating back the tide, which would be a departure from her predecessors’ track record. Help her, but above all, bring her to me. If she doesn’t need your help—which is almost certainly the case, considering her and considering you—she’ll be willing to help you if you create a need. She’s a protective one, is Avelea.”

“Ma’am,” Jenell said desperately, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for this. I don’t know anything about associating with that kind of…riffraff.”

Basra smiled. “Then I suggest you get to work developing new skills, Jenell. One can never have too many, after all.” Abruptly her voice sharpened. “Well? Why are you still here?”

Jenell snapped off a salute, and fumbled with the door in the process of skittering out.

She kept herself to a fast pace all the way down the hall and around the corner; the door didn’t open behind her, but its frosted glass pane could have given Basra a wavery view of her retreating back, had the Bishop bothered to watch her. It was never worth making assumptions or taking risks with Basra Syrinx.

Once around the turn, though, she slowed to a more normal pace, and, finding herself alone in the hall, permitted herself a grin of fierce triumph.

That was the first part, done.


Busking was beneath her dignity, of course. Imagine, playing the guitar on a street corner, like…any of the people who plied a trade on street corners. Not a one of those potential trades were anything Ami Talaari wanted anything to do with. And worse, what if someone important saw her? This was a block toward the walls from the Temple of Avei—still a central district of the city, close enough to Imperial Square that, even at this tedious hour of midmorning, the right sort of people might be about. She consoled herself with the thought that most of those whose attention she courted would still be asleep, the better to be out conniving and carousing long into the night.

Fortunately, she wasn’t kept waiting long.

Principia drew looks, as always when walking the city with her helmet off. The respect commanded by a Silver Legionnaire contrasted with the suspicion accorded an elf. Ami rather doubted Locke ever had to deal with racist imprecations; she didn’t get as many tipped hats and murmured blessings as most of her sisters-in-arms, probably, but still. Rare was the fool who wanted to start a fight with the Legions.

All this was quite useful at this moment, as it meant the few other passersby kept a respectful distance from Locke as she strode past Ami’s corner, pausing to drop a coin into her guitar case. No one was close enough to hear the elf murmur.

“She bought it.”

Ami nodded to her, not pausing in her song, just as she would any other patron. Her face remained in a smile that held despite her singing. Of course, it was now a genuine smile, but the punters would never know the difference.

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11 – 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We?”

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing, Principia?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nandi saluted, still with that little smile.

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


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

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

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

“And so you joined the military?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much harder?”

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

“And you?” Jasmine asked pointedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What can I do?” Principia asked immediately.

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

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

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

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

“I see.”

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

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

“What happened to cover and listening ears?”

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

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

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

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

“Getting takes time,” Principia pointed out.

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

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

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

Principia’s eyebrows shot upward. “Replaced?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the people within them…”

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

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

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

“That—what—how—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jasmine nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My time is yours.”

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11 – 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eivery grinned. “Is it working?”

“A little. But seriously, now…”

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

“That’s what I was told. What of it?”

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

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

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

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

“Promises, promises.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Probably shoot herself,” Casey said cheerfully.

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

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

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

“It’s a compliment, Avelea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry chucked a boot at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why, though?”

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

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

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

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

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