Tag Archives: Quentin Vex

12 – 51

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“You know the plan, Quentin,” the Empress said the instant he had shut the door behind them. It wasn’t that Imperial Guards weren’t trusted, but security was security. Nearly every door and wall in the harem wing was enchanted for silence at need, which was exactly why they were left open unless someone specifically required privacy. “I assume your part is in motion, now, and you wished to speak to me so urgently about something else—that, or something has gone wrong.”

She gave him one of those looks that seemed like it should be directed over a pair of schoolmarm’s spectacles. He took it as a sign of fondness; Eleanora gave most people looks that would freeze falling water.

“We have a brief window,” he said crisply, “in which Darling is proceeding to his agent’s home to extract his Majesty. And…no, I have not yet given the order for my people to withdraw from the district.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Quentin…”

“Before doing so,” he pressed on, “I would like to discuss doing anything else, your Majesty. If you will clear it, I can arrange a safe escort to another facility.”

“Quentin.”

“We know the Thieves’ Guild is active in the region, and we have now specifically antagonized them on top of their general unpredictability, to say nothing of what his Majesty hoped would unfold in the first place.”

“And,” she said sharply, “by getting my approval for completely eviscerating Sharidan’s plan and wasting all the effort put into it thus far, you are likely to find yourself simply dismissed from your post rather than charged with treason. You feel so strongly about this?”

“I am very good at my job,” he said, the merest hint of sharpness encroaching upon his tone. “You will be hard-pressed to replace me, your Majesty. But ultimately, as difficult a task as it may be, I can be replaced. That is not true of the Emperor! Your Majesty, this is a bad idea.”

“So you said in the first place,” she acknowledged with a sigh. “And yet, here we are.”

“The risk vastly outstrips any potential reward! There is as yet no heir to the Throne, and we’ve only just begun to learn why. It’s unconscionable for the Emperor to jeopardize his safety this way!”

“I note you avoided words like ‘unconscionable’ when making your point to his face,” she said dryly. “And you know as well as I that the end of the Tirasian bloodline would not automatically end the name. I am still of House Tirasian, if even by marriage. I can still have a child.” Her lips compressed momentarily in displeasure at the thought, more of a lapse than she ever showed in public.

“That was before Elilial’s gambit,” Vex snapped, all pretense of decorum lost. “We now know the Tirasian bloodline has not ended, and any hint of impropriety in the succession will inevitably precipitate a crisis. We don’t yet know what play she intends, but that matter is unresolved and must be planned for.”

“Time is wasting while we discuss this, Quentin,” she said. “Darling is on the move, and the Emperor’s orders are not being obeyed.”

“Please,” he begged. “Your Majesty… Eleanora. It’s too much a risk. Please, give the order.”

She regarded him in expressionless silence for a moment. When she spoke, though, her tone was softer than before. “And if I do not, Quentin, will you give it yourself? Defy the Emperor for his own sake and face the consequences it would bring?”

He opened his mouth a fraction, froze, then closed it.

Eleanora took two steps toward him, close enough to reach out and lay a hand on his upper arm. “We wouldn’t be having this argument if you didn’t care about the Empire enough to sacrifice yourself at need, Quentin. You hesitate because you’re uncertain. Because you know, as I do, the truth about Sharidan Tirasian: he needs cold-blooded people like us to support him and moderate some of his impulses and idealistic tendencies—moderate, not thwart. The most irritating thing about being in his service is how often he is right when by all accounts he really should not be.”

It was Vex’s turn to press his lips into a thin line. He let out a long breath through his nose.

“To win when you absolutely ought to lose,” Eleanora murmured. “Isn’t that what they say defined the heroes of old? The trait that separated them from the rabble of mere adventurers.” Her grip on his arm tightened subtly, and threads of the old steel reappeared in her voice. “This is as long as we can delay, Quentin. The signal.”

Vex sighed heavily, a most uncharacteristic display of emotion, but produced a pocket watch from inside his coat and turned the key twice clockwise, once the other way, then three times clockwise again. There was no flash or sparkle, no sound but the gears clicking—much as arcane magic tended to create spectacles, the charms used by Imperial Intelligence’s field agents were very specifically designed for subtlety. The companion devices carried by Vex’s people would convey the signal, and that would be that; his agents would begin withdrawing from the neighborhood, leaving the Emperor apparently unprotected.

“He does this on purpose, you know,” he complained, slipping the watch back into his pocket. “Always has. He enjoys making me worry and chase him around. Don’t deny it, part of the motivation for this whole scheme was nostalgia. Well, he’s not the crown prince anymore, and we all have better things to do than play round-the-bush.”

“That’s right, get it out of your system,” Eleanora said wryly, stepping back and folding her hands in a gesture that would have looked demure on anyone else. “You said Darling bought it. How deeply, do you think?”

“I can’t say whether he was fully taken in or just playing along,” Vex replied, his usual composure falling back into place as if it had never been ruffled. “Our exchange might have been written by a bard, so I suspect the latter. But in either case, he will stay in the area after giving his message. He needs to understand what’s happening, now that he’s neck deep in it. Himself and those two elven apprentices of his, at minimum; I rather think he’ll have other thieves about, too. He gave it nearly a full day after the tip was leaked to his students before acting, and then penetrated my house’s security as if it wasn’t there. The pattern suggests he has been making preparations since last night.”

“And in a sense,” she mused, “Sharidan was more right than he could have known; thanks to Milanda, the Archpope is reeling. He may have the good sense to withdraw, you know. Justinian is nothing if not cautious. This could all come to nothing.”

“Anything could always end in a nice, clean, peaceable nothing,” Vex replied irritably. “I find that possibility is never worth considering.”

“We will have to trust,” she said quietly. “That Sharidan knows what he is doing, that Milanda’s efforts will bear fruit…”

“That Darling knows which side his bread is buttered on, that the Hands are not too compromised… I’m not one of those paranoid fools who think you can never trust anyone, your Majesty. That’s an impossible way to live, and we both know it. But one must act carefully, and trust rationally, and now we are extending far too much trust in far too many directions.”

“And yet, here we are,” she repeated. “It’s done, Quentin; stand ready to act when action is called for. Sharidan knows what he is doing.”

“We all know what he’s doing,” Vex said bitterly, turning and grasping the doorknob. “I deeply hope some of us are wrong.”


“Unprotected?”

“That is what the spirits indicated,” the dragon said in perfect serenity.

Justinian felt an urge to drum his fingers on something. Bad enough Khadizroth had managed to summon him here so quickly; he should not be able to get messages past the usual secure channels, but it seemed the dragon had developed enough pull among the soldiers supposedly watching him that most of them were willing to do him favors. Extravagant ones. That development was no less ominous for having been foreseen; Justinian hadn’t had the trusted troops to spare for rotating his guards even before the assassin had carved half of them to chum. Now, here he was; however the message had gotten through, its urgency was such that he could not ignore it without losing further face by making it plain he was playing petty mind games.

All of which, of course, Khadizroth knew. The time was rapidly approaching when he would have to do something about this.

“I hope,” he said aloud, “you don’t think me foolish enough to leap into rash action based upon this.”

“Indeed not,” Khadizroth replied, nodding gracefully, “I’m well aware of your foresight, your Holiness, and grateful that I don’t have to explain these matters. You understand, of course, the difference between oracular seeing such as I can use and arcane scrying. Precise details about who is where and doing what I cannot give you; only a sense of the state of things. An Emperor of Tiraas being suddenly without protectors, at large in the city…that is a state which swiftly garners the attention of spirits who are already being asked to look in on him. He is not unwatched, but the parties currently with their eyes upon him are…separate.”

“How so?”

“Unaligned,” the dragon said with a thoughtful frown. “Forgive me, I am not trying to be vague. It is always difficult to put into words what was conveyed mentally. Someone is near the Emperor and watching him, but someone not moved either to attack or defend, at least at present. I saw a shadow, a grey shape lurking at a distance without intent. Whoever it is, they likely know more than I about the particulars of the situation.”

Darling and his thieves? The Black Wreath? Foreign agents, like the dwarves who had so nearly upended the city recently? Anyone would take an interest in the Emperor being in play like this, and most of the competent players would watch to see what was happening before committing themselves. Almost the only thing he could rule out was the Rust, who had not spread beyond Puna Dara. Speculation, of course, was pointless—and would have been even if he were absolutely sure Khadizroth could be trusted.

“How very ominous,” the Archpope murmured, putting on a pensive frown of his own. “The pattern of the last week barely makes it believable… But still. This raises a crucial question.”

“Only one?” Khadizroth lifted an eyebrow, and Justinian had to actually concentrate for a moment to be sure he did not betray irritation in his voice or expression.

“One which supersedes the many others, in my opinion,” he clarified. “Why is the Emperor alone and undefended? With so much importance resting upon his safety, and the resources of the Tiraan Empire at his disposal, it seems hard to credit. Is it possible your spirits were…mistaken?”

“I hesitate to call anything impossible,” Khadizroth replied, “but that prospect is one so very unlikely that I find it hardly worth considering. Again, what I do is not scrying; a scryer can be very easily blocked. Only a fae user of enormous age and skill even can interfere with the seeing of an oracle, and then only to the minutest degree. For someone to first perceive, then intercept, and then change the content of spirit messages I have sought out… Hypothetically, for such a thing to happen, it would almost mean Naiya herself had moved against me. Which, of course, is also not impossible but unlikely enough to be dismissed from consideration.”

Arrogant. Dragons were known to be prideful, of course, and justly so, but one as old and wise as this should know better than to assume he could never be countered. Justinian filed this away for later use; first, the demands of the moment.

“If we accept, then, that this is the truth…the question remains: why?” He began slowly pacing up and down the limited space provided by the cramped office, aware of and ignoring the dragon’s gaze following him. “I can think of only two possibilities. Either there is a schism within the Imperial government itself and the Emperor is on the run from his own guardians, or this is a trap intended to lure his enemies out.”

“If it is the first,” Khadizroth said, “the second is also a possibility; it would be a canny move, since only traitorous protectors would be in a position to expect the Emperor to be unprotected.”

“Just so,” Justinian agreed, nodding without glancing at him. “And besides, if it were a trap…the risk involved is astronomical. I cannot believe Sharidan would be so reckless, and I know Eleanora and Vex would intervene if he were.”

“Unless,” the dragon added, “one or both of them had turned against him.”

“Then we are back in the same position,” Justinian said with a humorless smile. “Not impossible, but hardly likely enough to bother considering. Their whole world revolves around him.”

“So the more immediate question,” Khadizroth prompted, “is what are we going to do about this?”

We. Placing himself subtly on equal footing with the Archpope. He betrayed eagerness by asking, though, and not just at the prospect of some action; this was the moment when the Archpope would have to either reaffirm his loyalty to the Emperor, or reveal himself as a traitor with murderous designs on Sharidan’s person.

Oh, yes, Justinian decided he had had just about enough of this. His current crop of adventurers served as the perfect foil for Darling’s team, just what he needed to keep them in play and invested without letting them cause real damage. Darling’s five, however, were the players that mattered; he needed red herrings and chew toys for them, not legitimate rivals, and he’d been of the mind for some time now that he needed to switch this lot out for something more…controllable. Kheshiri and the Jackal were more trouble than they were worth to keep occupied, Shook and Vannae just didn’t perform well enough to merit their status, and Khadizroth was increasingly determined to make himself an actual problem.

So he thought Justinian was in a corner, did he? He was hardly the first.

“This is delicate,” he said aloud. “Very, very delicate. Obviously the risk to his Majesty is severe, and should be mitigated; the loss of a sitting, childless Emperor would cause a shock the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Enchanter Wars, and our society is troubled enough without exposing it to that. Such a disaster must be prevented.”

“It goes without saying,” Khadizroth agreed in a grave tone. Justinian looked up, nodding seriously at him, and they both politely pretended to have forgotten Khadizroth’s recent attempt to cause a far worse shock than that to the Empire.

“However,” Justinian continued, “we must also consider recent events. I’m afraid the Throne is particularly mistrustful of the Church right now, and not nearly enough time has passed for me to soothe over the ripples caused by our misunderstanding. If our people are found to be hovering over the Emperor in his time of vulnerability, Lord Vex will be quite justified in taking it amiss. Frankly he would be remiss in taking any other way.”

“Forgive me,” Khadizroth said with diffidence that poorly suited him, “but I had been operating on the assumption that anyone sent to address this would be…off the books, as it were.”

“At moments like this, it is best not to make assumptions about who knows what,” Justinian said seriously. So Khadizroth wanted his companions sent out on this, did he? Why? “But you’re right. An official Church presence would be clearly antagonistic. Let me pose you a question.” He came to a stop, turning to face the dragon fully. “What of your team? If I sent them to keep watch over the Emperor until he can be secured by his proper guardians…can they be trusted with such a mission, in your opinion?”

“They are…reasonably effective,” Khadizroth said slowly. “I hesitate to use the word ‘competent;’ though they are each good at their respective roles, none of these personalities are well-suited for teamwork, and their competing agendas can raise…issues…in the field.”

“That is my concern exactly,” Justinian agreed. “Some of them in particular, I fear, would view this opportunity to create havoc on a colossal scale as too great a temptation to resist.”

“Mm. No, I don’t believe that is a problem,” the dragon mused. “The Jackal likes his havoc small and personal, and Kheshiri is on a leash whose length and hardiness I have spent much of my acquaintance with Jeremiah verifying. He is not the master of her, whatever he thinks, but his control suffices to keep her from doing anything so destructive as that.”

“And you, of course, cannot go along,” Justinian said with a gentle smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Khadizroth replied, grinning. “It spares me the awkwardness of refusing to. With my cousins active in the city, the risk of me doing anything in public is simply too great.”

“I appreciate your insight,” Justinian said. “These divinations of yours. Do you know where the Emperor is, specifically?”

“Specifically, no, but I’m confident I can find him quickly.”

“And can you direct Vannae to do this for you?”

The merest hesitation. “…yes, that should be possible.”

Justinian kept his smile calm, beatific. Vannae, the only one of the crew Khadizroth truly cared about, and was invested in. Putting him at the vanguard should be…revealing. And now to begin applying the pressure.

“Then we must prepare to mobilize the team,” he said solemnly. “I will leave it to you to brief them; I must make other preparations. After all, it seems prudent, in this case, to have someone to watch the watchers. Discreetly.”

“Of course,” Khadizroth said, after another very faint pause, then bowed. “I’ll go gather them immediately, your Holiness.”

“Thank you,” Justinian said warmly. “Your aid to us in these last painful days has been a godsend which cannot be appreciated enough.”

“We all do what we can,” the dragon replied with a good effort at proper draconic inscrutable aloofness. Justinian smiled benignly at his back as he left the room.

Ohh, yes. Chew on that.


“I’ll get it!”

“You stay put,” Lakshmi said quickly, reaching up to grab one of the hands kneading her shoulders as their owner started to pull away toward the door. “You’re in hiding, remember? You can’t possibly be bored enough to risk blowing it after just a couple days.”

“Well, right at this moment, I can’t say that I am, no,” Danny murmured, and she grinned, carefully not looking up at him.

“Sanjay! Door!”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard it,” Sanjay grumped, coming through the living room from the kitchen. He pointed accusingly at them on his way to the front door. “You two keep it above the waist. I’m tryin’ to have an innocent childhood, here.”

“No you aren’t,” she said lazily.

“No, I’m not,” he agreed with a grin, then pulled the door open. “Sweet! Heya! What’s new?”

“Nothing good, kid,” the Bishop said, wearing a grim frown. He leaned forward, peering around the door frame. “Is—ah, good. You!”

“Me?” Danny raised his eyebrows, removing his hands from Lakshmi’s shoulders.

“Yes, you.” Sweet pointed at him. “Out. Now.”

“Whoah, what the fuck?” Lakshmi stood up, scowling. “You don’t just barge into somebody’s home and start barking orders, I don’t care what you were the Boss of.”

“I made you a promise, Peepers. Remember?”

She hesitated, glancing over her shoulder at Danny, who was now expressionless. “I remember.”

“I said,” Sweet continued, his dour expression gradually giving way to carefully-controlled anger, “that if I learned anything which suggested this arrangement was one bit more dangerous than I believed, I’d come right down here and put an end to it. Well, this is me honoring my word.”

“What’s happened?” she said in alarm, again looking back at her guest. “Is he in more danger?”

“No,” Sweet snapped. “No, he is not. It turns out that the people after him are not so much the stalking-through-the-streets kind as the teleporting-right-to-your-door kind, and they have the means to find out exactly where he is the moment they decide to. And despite what I was explicitly told, this has been the case from the beginning. This is danger I would not have dropped on any Guild member knowingly. Promise or no promise, Peepers, I owe you big for doing this to you.”

Lakshmi turned very slowly to face Danny, backing away. By the door, Sanjay was staring, his mouth hanging open incredulously.

“Did you know this?” she asked quietly.

“Matters aren’t as simple as he makes—”

“No!” Sanjay yelled so abruptly and so loudly that his voice cracked. “You don’t give us that noble doublespeak. You answer her question!”

“Did. You. Know. This,” Lakshmi growled. “Did you deliberately put me and my little brother in danger from your problems?”

“Lakshmi—”

“The lady asked you a very simple question, Danny,” Sweet said in a quiet tone which nonetheless cut him off completely. “The only answer it needs is one syllable either way.”

Danny gave him a long, inscrutable look, then turned a different but equally cagey one on Lakshmi. Finally, his shoulders shifted in a soft sigh. He did not avoid her gaze, though.

“Yes. I knew it.”

The silence was excruciating. Fortunately, it was brief.

“You son of a bitch!”

“No!” Sweet streaked across the room the moment she clenched her fists; by the time she flew into action, he got close enough to grab her, and that only because Danny retreated circumspectly behind the sofa.

“Get your fucking hands off me!” Lakshmi raged, struggling ineffectually against the grip on her wrists. “I’m gonna break his fucking head!”

“No, you’re not!” Sweet shouted, and shook her hard enough to momentarily stall her thrashing. “Peepers! Listen to me, you have no idea who this guy is. Harm him and you’re kicking over more trouble than you can imagine. I’m getting him out of here and away, where he’s not a danger to you—or from you, because both of those will hurt you just as bad, trust me.”

She drew her lips back in a snarl. “Trust you. This is all your fault!”

“Yes, that’s right,” he agreed, holding her gaze. “But I haven’t lied to you, nor will I. I thought I was telling you the truth when I said this was safe. I found out it’s not, so I’m putting a stop to it. And I will make this up to you.”

“He’s right, Shmi,” Sanjay said. He was practically quivering with fury, fists clenched at his sides, but aside from the accusing glare he fixed on Danny, he made no move. “Sweet fucked up, but he’s been straight with us. He’s Guild.”

“And he,” Sweet added, jerking his head in Danny’s direction, “lied to the Guild. He’s not walking out of here without consequences, Peepers, that I promise you. Let me protect you from them, at least. It’s the best I can do for you right now.”

She jerked against him once more, but weakly, then suddenly slumped, letting her head hang. After a moment, Sweet released her arms, and they fell limply to her sides.

“Get him the fuck out of my house.”

“Well, you heard her,” Sweet said, turning a totally unsympathetic look on Danny. “Let’s go.”

Danny sighed softly. “If I—”

“Did somebody ask you something?” Sanjay snapped, voice cracking again. “This isn’t a conversation. Fucking go.”

He crossed the room to stand next to his sister, who had lifted her head to stare at Danny. They looked eerily alike, glaring at him with matching venom.

Danny sighed again, then turned and strode unhurriedly to the door, where Sweet stood aside for him in a hostile mockery of politeness. He paused just before stepping out, turning to look back at them again. “For what it’s worth, I—”

“Don’t,” she said icily. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

He hesitated, then nodded once, and stepped out.

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12 – 50

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Iris stared at her, mouth slightly open, and Maureen found herself in the odd position of feeling too awkward even to cringe. She simply froze, waiting for the hammer to come down.

“Oh,” Iris said after an excruciating pause, clearly grasping for something to say. “…you are?”

“No!” Maureen blurted. “I mean, yes, but… I, it’s, I don’t…”

She opened and closed her mouth twice, and then finally gave up and hid her face in her hands.

It was another silent few moments before the bench shifted, Iris having stepped over to settle onto it beside her.

“So, um,” the human said a few seconds later, “I don’t…know how good my advice might be. I’m guessing not very. But…I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener? If that’ll help?”

“I don’t know what to do,” Maureen whispered.

Iris finally settled an arm around her shoulders. Well, a forearm. The difference in their sizes made it a slightly awkward gesture, but less awkward than the rest of this, all things considered.

“Is it about the Sleeper?”

Maureen sighed, then nodded miserably, finally peeking over her fingers. “I’m such a coward.”

“I think being terrified in this situation just means you aren’t crazy.”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” she whispered. “You can be afraid when you’re in danger. You’re right, that’s just sense. Somethin’s wrong with you if you’re not. Courage an’ cowardice is all in what you do about it. An’ I just wanna run away.”

Iris held silent, rubbing her shoulder gently for a moment, before speaking. “Well, um. I missed you at lunch, but all your stuff’s still in the room. What I mean is, it doesn’t look like you’re trying to bolt, here. I wouldn’t have thought you were gonna until you said something.”

Maureen heaved a much heavier sigh, and leaned against her for a second before straightening up again. The position had tucked her right under Iris’s arm, which was a little uncomfortable.

“Truthfully, I hadn’t made up me own mind. I’ve been standin’ down here, ditherin’ on it.”

“Well, there you go, then,” Iris said with only sightly forced cheer. “Sounds like you’re not a complete coward.”

“You don’t understand,” she muttered.

“…okay, so, maybe I don’t. You can explain it to me, if you want.”

“I’m a gnome,” Maureen exclaimed. “Adventure is what we do. Hell, it’s what we are. Surely ye know that much?”

“I…well, gnomes do have that reputation, yes. I wasn’t gonna try to make assumptions, though. Since coming to this school and meeting all kinds of people I’ve been learning not to do that if I can avoid it. Gets awkward.”

“Sure, that’s sense. But when it comes to gnomes, aye, the stereotype’s there for a reason. We made it ourselves an’ work at livin’ up to it. Me mum already thinks I’m a nutter cos I like tinkerin’ with machines more’n roughhousin’. Me whole life, I never wanted t’go out an’ play with they other kids. They were always explorin’ the woods around the Hold, fightin’ off boars, fallin’ in caves, gettin’ lost fer weeks on end…”

“You let kids do that?” Iris demanded in horror.

“We’re gnomes,” Maureen said with a shrug, finally looking up at her. The human’s expression was equal parts fascinated and aghast. “It’s… Well, look, Iris, we don’t often talk about our business outside the Folk. There’s stuff you’re just not meant to know, so…don’t feel bad if some of what I do say doesn’t make much sense to ye.”

“Well, I mean, sure,” Iris said hastily. “You don’t have to tell me anything, Maureen, I’m not gonna pry. I’m just here to listen if you want to talk. Talking to somebody always helped me when I struggled with things.”

“Aye, don’t worry,” she said a little wryly, “I’m not about t’give away any great secrets. But you’ve gotta understand… Aye, gnomish children are pretty well expected to get into scrapes that’d bally well kill off humans twice their age, see? So when yer a kid who likes t’stay indoors, readin’ books an’ stackin’ yer toys up into interesting new shapes… Well, when I was real young, me mum thought I was barmy. An’ those were th’good years. Past a certain age, ye get to the point where not doin’ what your society wants makes people think…poorly.”

“I know a little about that, myself,” Iris said quietly.

Maureen nodded. “So, aye. I hate this, Iris. I just wanna make stuff! I like buildin’ things, not riskin’ me ears on adventures. Makes me a fair lousy gnome, but I’m me, y’know? An’ this…this Sleeper nonsense…” She swallowed heavily. “I was actually excited t’be comin’ here. Sure, I got a place at the school cos me uncle went adventurin’ with Tellwyrn back in the day, before she was a Professor an’ all. I got sent to the school cos me folks figured it was the only place left for a classic adventurin’ education. But Tellwyrn came to our place ta give me the interview, an once me mum an’ dad were outta the room, she made it clear what I could learn here didn’t have to be adventure if I didn’t want it to be.”

“You always seemed okay on field trips,” Iris said softly. “Like, out in the Golden Sea. Honestly I kinda thought you were in your element. You knew all about making campsites.”

“Oh, any gnome knows stuff like that,” Maureen said, waving a hand dismissively. “Raw basics. An’ we didn’t even have proper adventures!”

“Proper adventures,” Iris repeated, her eyebrows climbing. “I’m sorry, but do you remember the manticore? Or the harpies? Or that whatsit that wanted to eat Raolo?”

“That whatsit was a fairy, an’ those were all nothin’,” the gnome said with a grin. “Trash mobs an’ beginner dilemmas. Have ye heard the story o’ what the sophomores went through on their Golden Sea trip? Now that was a proper adventure!”

“The way I heard it, half of them nearly died. And considering most of them are nearly un-killable…”

“Exactly.” Maureen leaned back, letting her head thunk against the bench. “…exactly. There’s a part o’ me that can appreciate a story like that. Me upbringin’, aye? But not me. A life spent workin’ in a big factory, designin’ new machines… A dwarf’s life, basically, not a gnome. It’s a gnomish idea of hell, but t’me, it sounds like heaven. No matter who scared an’ fed up I am, I can’t go runnin’ home at the first sign o’ lethal danger. I can’t, Iris. I’m already the worst gnome there is. I can’t bear how me mum’d look at me…”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Iris murmured, “but…maybe being a good person is more important than being a good gnome? You’re one of the best people I know, Maureen.”

“Have you thought about runnin’?” Maureen asked, looking up at her again. “Tell ye the plain truth, Iris, half o’ what scares me is how all this seems targeted at us. Half our dorm’s been hit, an’ Raolo, who’s also our year. Plus Natchua an’ Shaeine, who’re connected to Szith through the exchange program. I’d suspect it was Addiwyn actin’ up again if she wasn’t one o’ the first to go.”

“I don’t run from enemies,” Iris said quietly, her eyebrows settling into a hard line. “Especially warlocks.”

“…you’d have made a more’n fair gnome.”

She grinned. “Well. I dunno about that, but considering the source, I get the feeling that’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

“It’s like everything that makes me love this place is bein’ taken away,” Maureen whispered. “Even Rook’s gone. I’ve got nobody left to Patter with.”

“Rook?” Iris’s eyebrows shot upward and she leaned away, staring down at her in shock. “You had a thing with Rook? The scruffy one?”

“A thing with—oh, ew!” Maureen wrinkled her nose. “Don’t be utterly daft, he’s well too old for me, an’ not my type even if I was inta tall boys! It’s not like that, Iris, it’s just…he spoke a bit o’ Patter, as much as a human can. It was a wee bit o’ home.”

Iris blinked, then shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Maureen rubbed at her face with both hands. “…all right. Well. You’ve noticed how me accent tends to…come an’ go?”

“I, uh, didn’t want to say anything. It seemed rude…”

“Oh, it’s not rude,” Maureen replied with a rueful smile. “And I’ve a million ways to deflect the conversation if ye had, we all learn ’em growin’ up. It’s not just an accent—it’s Patter. There’s a rhythm to it, a second language threaded through the Tanglish. A whole other layer of meanin’, a way to communicate that shares so much more than just words can.”

“Oh.” Iris blinked. “And Rook can do that?”

“Humans can’t do it,” Maureen explained, wincing. “It’s…this is a bit of a secret, by the way. Not a huge one, the Nemitites an’ some others doubtless know about Patter, but it’s not somethin’ we talk about outside the Folk, except with our most trusted friends.”

“Well, I’m honored, then,” Iris said with a smile.

Maureen smiled back. “But it’s a gnomish thing. It’s intuitive; half of it isn’t even verbal. You have to be a gnome to Patter properly. But there’s some very few humans, those who were brought up by the Folk as babies—aye, that does happen, there’s not a gnome alive who’d throw out an infant if there was nobody else to take care of ’em. They pick up a wee bit of it. Not enough to Patter fully, but if ye get ’em young, when their minds are unformed, they can do some o’ the basic patterns. Rook can, so we’d talk sometimes. Made me feel at home, a bit. Him too, I guess.”

“Huh.” Iris blinked again, twice. “So…Rook was raised by gnomes. How ’bout that.”

“I dunno ‘is story,” Maureen said, shrugging. “He didn’t offer, an’ fer anybody with a gnomish upbringing it’s powerfully rude t’pry. But…now he’s gone, him an’ the other lads, an’ nothin’ left behind ’em but rumors that a Hand o’ the Emperor did ’em in. Bit by bit, Iris, everythin’ I love about bein’ here is bein’ taken away.”

It seemed Iris could find nothing to say to that. For a few more long minutes, they sat in silence.

“I can’t stay here,” Maureen whispered at last. “I can’t. And…I can’t go home either. I can’t do anything. Iris, what am I gonna do?”

“I don’t know, Maureen,” Iris replied softly. “Hon, I don’t think this is something I can help you answer. But… I can sit with you while you figure it out, if you want.”

“…aye. Yeah, that’s not nothin’.”

Slowly, Maureen leaned against her again. It was still awkward, but all things considered, that wasn’t so bad.


The door was not locked, for much the same reason Darling’s own was not; anybody trying to break into this house was either an imbecile or fishing for more trouble than most people wanted to risk. Darling, of course, preferred not to think of himself as an imbecile, but the next few minutes would likely tell.

It wasn’t, of course, as easy as just strolling up the path and walking in, but he hadn’t come here alone. Quietly removing the guards from the home of the head of Imperial Intelligence had required him to call in more favors than he’d ever before expended on a single job, but damn if it wouldn’t impress the hell out of Vex, which of course was the point.

He quietly closed the front door and paused in the entryway, examining the place. It was eerily familiar—very much like his own home, in fact. The tastefully expensive furnishings might have come right out of a magazine illustration, without a hint of personal identity anywhere. Whatever personality this place had, it was well concealed and likely not immediately accessible from any of the entrances. Which meant Darling wasn’t going to see it on this visit. He wasn’t nearly daft enough to think a house like this would have no interior defenses; getting inside had been as much as he’d been able to arrange. He had no plans to step through one more door. Gods only knew what might befall him further in.

No one was there to greet him at first, interestingly. Vex did not employ a Butler, and in fact had made a point of disapproving of Panissar employing one. Despite the Service Society’s vaunted discretion and neutrality, the spymaster felt it a gross abrogation of security to have such a powerful outside organization in a position to access Imperial secrets. It seemed strange that there were no servants, however. True, he had come in without knocking, but any well-trained household staff would be attuned to the sound of the door opening. This place was spotlessly clean, and Darling would eat his own shoes of Vex dusted it himself.

Even while he wondered on it, though, the swishing of fabric and rapid footsteps announced someone coming. Darling put on a pleasant smile and tucked his fingertips into his sleeve discreetly. He was still in full view of the windows…

A young woman bustled into the entry room from a hall doorway and stopped, staring at him rather stupidly. She was an immediately recognizable archetype: blonde, lovely, with elaborately styled hair and too much makeup, wearing a dress which was necessarily out of fashion. Current trends followed the Empress’s personal taste in severe, dark-colored gowns, which poorly suited the professional floozy. Her richly embroidered dress of blue velvet was daring, in the sense that if she moved too abruptly it was likely to slide right off her entirely. Despite its long, blousy sleeves and ankle-length skirts, it left enough of her chest on display she might have been cited for indecency if she left the house during daylight hours.

“Oh,” the girl said finally, in a voice so high-pitched it went past cute and into the territory of grating. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I never heard you knock! That silly maid should’ve answered the door.” She turned to look back into the hall, twisting her torso admirably into profile in the process. “Elzi! You silly girl, where are you?! There’s a visitor!”

“Now, that’s not necessary,” Darling said smoothly, not moving from his position. There was a wall immediately to his left; the room opened up on the right, with tall windows, the curtains currently not drawn, and a single low sofa flanked by end tables occupying the space. An entry where visitors could be kept waiting in a modicum of comfort while it was decided whether they should be allowed deeper into the house. Also, ample space for brawling, if necessary. “So sorry to barge in like this, but I need to speak with Quentin. Immediately.”

“Oh,” she said, turning back to him and batting her thick lashes, blue eyes wide and vacant. The girl sashayed forward a few steps, and he infinitesimally shifted his fingertips to touch the throwing knife up his sleeve, keeping his right hand against his side where she couldn’t clearly see it without doing anything so overtly shifty as moving it behind his back. “Well, Quenty’s usually not home at this time of afternoon—”

“He’s here,” Darling said. Calm and pleasant, but flatly implacable, with the faintest edge to his tone that she seemed not intelligent enough to grasp.

She showed no sign of having grasped it.

“Oh, you think so?” the girl tittered, coming forward another step. “Well, he’s probably up in his office, then. I can take you right to him!”

“That’s all right,” he said with a flirtatious wink. “I’ll wait right here.”

The girl stopped again, once more batting her lashes with an expression of thought which suggested it was a difficult labor for her. “But…but if he doesn’t know you’re here…”

“He knows,” Darling said quietly. “I can be patient. For a while.”

She tilted her blonde head to one side, staring quizzically up at him, then her expression cleared and she smiled, a touch too warmly. “Well, then, if you’re sure. Maybe while we wait—”

The projectile made only the softest sound when it punched through the glass of the front window, boring a neat hole rather than shattering the whole pane. It struck her perfectly on the side of her graceful neck and lodged there, little more than a needle attached to a pencil-thick length of rune-engraved wood. The girl managed a single gurgle and collapsed, slumping against the sofa with one arm draped across it, her head lolling back.

“I don’t think that was called for,” said Quentin Vex, stepping into the room and regarding Darling with a mildly disapproving expression. “There’s really no point in asking what happened to my house guards, is there?”

Darling stepped over to the fallen woman and calmly plucked the dart from her neck, tucking it into his pocket. “There we go; wouldn’t want you to overdose. I’m told alchemical drugs are very precise, but no sense taking risks, eh?” In fact, there was virtually no risk at all, except of him leaving evidence.

Vex shook his head and strode forward. “If you insist on—”

“Not one more goddamned step, Quentin.”

He didn’t bother pulling out his knife. Vex halted two steps into the room, blinking somnolently.

Darling, meanwhile, picked up the girl’s hand, running his fingertips along her wrist, up under her sleeve. Her eyes tracked him, the only thing she could currently move; even her facial expression was frozen in vacancy.

“There we are,” he said in satisfaction, withdrawing the wand he found strapped to her forearm. “Long, baggy sleeves—not part of the kept bimbo’s customary uniform. She’s good, isn’t she? If I hadn’t come here looking for something like this, I’d never have given her a second thought. Oh, my, this is a nice piece, isn’t it?”

The wand was beautifully crafted, its haft bounded in fancifully wrought silver with a large pearl on the end. Darling held it up to the light, admiring the workmanship. It was a shortened variety, perfect for concealing in pockets, at the expense of most of its firepower and accuracy; a weapon like this was all but useless at a range of more than two yards, but a nasty surprise for up-close fighting. Illegal for exactly those reasons, of course. This was a type of wand favored by spies and criminals.

“A gift,” Vex said curtly.

“Well, I promise I shall treasure it,” Darling replied, giving the young woman a wink and slipping her wand into his own sleeve.

Vex cleared his throat. “Maybe you should consider not digging yourself any deeper, Antonio. Trixie isn’t someone you want for an enemy.”

“Oh. Really?” Darling stared down at the paralyzed girl, blinking in apparently thought, her hand still held in his. She gazed blankly back.

He shifted his grip, squeezed, and wrenched. In the quiet foyer, the snap of her wrist breaking was plainly audible. She couldn’t even blink, but her pupils shrank to pinpricks.

Vex had not so much as twitched. That said nothing about whether he cared for the girl; he was too much a professional, and the injury too easily healed. Darling hadn’t really expected him to show his hand in response to what amounted to petulance. “This begins to seem downright out of character, Antonio,” Vex said. “Not your actual character, of course, but the role you like to play in public. Are you sure you want to take the masks off?”

“They’re off,” Darling said curtly, straightening and dropping Trixie’s arm. Vex’s eyes locked on his, sharp and focused, with no trace of the spymaster’s normally sleepy expression. “My apprentices overheard the most interesting thing last night, Quentin. Care to hazard a guess what it was?”

“You have indulged in all the melodrama you’re going to, Antonio. Say your piece before I decide you’re not worth allowing to leave here.”

He didn’t acknowledge the threat, which they both knew was empty. All part of the scene. “I took the time to follow up on rumors rather than risking all this based on one source. And guess what? It seems pretty well confirmed that the newly-unhinged Hands of the Emperor have acquired the ability to teleport.”

He took one step forward; Vex held his ground, eyes narrowed.

“So perhaps you can clarify something for me,” Darling said icily. “I have the Emperor hidden, at your request, with a member of my Guild—in her own home, where a child lives. All this on the presupposition that if the Hands start moving in his direction, your people on the scene will know in advance and have time to give warning and get my people to safety. Perhaps you would like to explain to me, Quentin, how they are meant to do this if the Hands can be on the site instantly?”

“Oh, don’t stop now,” Vex sneered. “Finish your monologue, Antonio. Storybook villainy suits you so perfectly.”

With the tiniest jerk of his arm, Darling dropped the wand out of his sleeve into his hand and shot him.

That, finally, got a reaction. The room was too long and the wand too inaccurate to hit at that distance, but the unfocused blast of light smashed a fairy lamp and charred a wide burn in the wallpaper far too close to Vex for comfort; the spymaster bolted to the side, bringing up a weapon of his own from behind his belt.

They froze, wands aimed at each other. The wall smoldered.

“You find me annoying, I know,” Darling said calmly. “You don’t know whose side I am truly on, and even as well as you control yourself, it irritates you, the way I play both ends against the middle.”

“Both?” Vex spat. “There are far more ends than that in your game.”

“Well, if you want to know what really matters to me, congratulations! You’ve forced my hand, Quentin.” Darling’s voice rose steadily as he continued. “You do not screw over the Thieves’ Guild! You came to me in good faith, promising to look after one of my people if she did the Throne an enormous favor. I added my own word to this. You made me a liar, put Eserites at risk of harm by your own agents, and broke faith with Eserion after coming to us for help. Do you have any idea what you’ve nearly sparked off? You can’t possibly not know! The Guild has taken kings right off their thrones for lesser insults than this!”

“Oh, spare me,” Vex snarled, no sign of his customary reserve in place. “Don’t you dare try to paint this as some kind of moral issue, you hypocrite. You’re no less a cold-blooded snake than I, and you know damn well what thrones and guilds are like! Yours, mine, everyone’s, everywhere. We did what we had to do, it required playing loose with the truth, and if it had all gone well, you’d never have been the wiser. Well, you caught me, fine. Win some, lose some. There’s nobody here but us bastards, Antonio; insult me by playing the martyr and I may decide to take all this personally.”

“I’m going to show you a little more of who I really am, Quentin,” Darling said flatly. “Right now, what I ought to do, as a faithful servant of Eserion, is take this right to the Boss and call for punishment for this hubris. We both know what would happen next—or at least, one of us does, and one has a general sort of idea.” Slowly, he lowered his arm. Vex did not do likewise, keeping the wand aimed at him, but his eyes flicked momentarily to the hole punched in his window, and he did not fire. “Instead, I’ve pulled out all the stops to stay his hand. You’ll never know how hard I had to lean on Tricks to keep this under wraps—and I only did that because I didn’t think I could keep it from him. I did this to stop the kind of bloodbath that should ensue when a sitting Emperor betrays the cult of Eserion the way ours just did. I did this because I am not your enemy, despite your apparent effort to make one of me.”

He slipped the wand into the pocket of his coat, eyes never leaving Vex’s.

“So now, I’m going to go to the home of my friend and Guildmate Peepers, and inform her that her houseguest lied and screwed us over and placed her and her little brother in immense physical jeopardy. I will not harm him in any way, nor allow her to—and not gonna lie, it may be a hell of a task to stop her. But his safe house is about to be gone. You’ve got that long to find another place to stash him. That’s your problem, not mine; in the position you’ve stuck me in, I can’t do you any more favors, however positively I may feel toward the Emperor. Or did until very recently, anyway. And that’s the end of it, Quentin. The Empire will not retaliate—against me, against Peepers, against the Guild. You will not interfere with me going over there. This all hangs by a thread, which you will cut if you make one more move in a direction the Boss finds even mildly distasteful. Understand?”

Darling held his gaze one moment longer before turning his back. He grasped the door handle, but paused before turning it, and spoke without looking back at Vex.

“You can’t fuck up like this again. Not one more time. I’ve worked too long and too hard to keep the Guild and the Throne in good standing with each other. No matter what duress you’re under, Quentin, do not make us enemies. We’ve both got much bigger fish to fry.”

Finally, he opened the door and stepped out.


The Imperial Guard, naturally, raised their weapons as someone teleported directly into the residence. In theory, only duly authorized mages should have been able to get through the wards, but those guarding the harem wing had recently had harsh lessons about the danger of trusting too much in their defenses.

Neither Vex nor the Azure Corps battlemage batted an eye at the staves leveled at them, simply standing motionless and waiting for the all clear.

“Stand down,” the officer on duty said after a moment, and all four soldiers returned their weapons to the upright position, falling back into parade rest around the room.

“Thank you, Major,” Vex said to the mage who had brought him. The man saluted, stepped back from him, and then with a short sparkle of blue light, vanished. The spymaster turned back to the officer who had spoken. “Where is she?”

“Here,” Eleanora herself stated, gliding into the room. “Fortunately—or is that why you chose to come during my customary tea time?” Despite her light tone, the Empress’s expression was sharp, tension visible in the set of her shoulders.

“I did not decide on the timing myself, your Majesty,” Vex replied, nodding deeply in a gesture that was nearly a bow. “I came to report that it’s in motion, now. Darling bought it.”

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12 – 44

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“As of now, this unit is reduced to one man,” Ravoud reported, his tone tight with compressed emotion. “Two, once Rossiter is cleared from observation for her head injury. She would have been already, but our medical staff is stretched to the limit.”

“I gave orders that you should reach beyond the Legion’s medics for this,” said Justinian, frowning. “If there is one thing the Universal Church does not lack, it’s healers.”

“Yes, your Holiness, but this isn’t a situation that can be solved with more healing. If not for Khadizroth and Vannae, we would have lost a lot more men last night. The remaining injuries, though… That weapon seared what it cut, sir. Re-attachment of the limbs simply isn’t an option. The good news is it prevented them from bleeding out on the spot; most of our medics’ initial work was in preventing infection. Now, they are trying to keep the men with internal injuries stabilized. There, again, Khadizroth has been invaluable. For now, the work is better served by having a few skilled people doing their best than a lot of outsiders slinging magic around.”

“Very well,” Justinian replied, heaving a sigh. “I trust your judgment in this, Nassir. The offer stands, though; if you can use any further resources or personnel, requisition them immediately. I’ve made it known you speak with my authority in this matter, at least for the time being.”

“Thank you, your Holiness,” Ravoud said, bowing. “There is also the matter of security…”

“Yes, always. We will prioritize, however,” said the Archpope. “Right now, our highest concern is the welfare of our men—whatever we can still ensure. There are so many for whom we can do nothing.”

“Yes,” Ravoud said, and his voice echoed with the hollowness he had kept leashed all day through sheer professionalism. “Your Holiness… It’s as I said. This is half the functional core of the Legion, just…gone. And each of them was hand-picked from the available troops. Sir, unless we either recruit more aggressively or considerably relax our standards, it’s going to take far longer to rebuild the Legion than it did to build it in the first place. Even re-assigning troops from First Unit…”

“Either of those will compromise security,” Justinian murmured. “We’ll hold off on the decision for now, Nassir. For the moment, as I said, we focus on healing. I will get fae healers to see about tissue regeneration. At the very least, hopefully we can save those who suffered cuts to the torso from that weapon. It may be that we can restore severed limbs for the rest.”

“Regenerating limbs is atrociously expensive,” Ravoud said quietly. Despite his gaunt pallor, his eyes remained focused and alert behind their reddened rims. “It’s not a problem which can be solved by throwing the Church’s treasury at it, either. The Salyrites can only do so much without burning up very rare reagents. Even the Empire doesn’t offer such treatments to its personnel except in very special cases.”

“I am aware. If nothing else, we can reach out to the elves—which, of course, raises its own set of problems. You are right about security, Nassir. We will attend to this first and foremost, and then, when we are able to take stock and see how badly we’ve been forced to reveal our hand, the issue of recruitment can be revisited.”

“Of course, your Holiness. I see your point.”

They paused, both turning, to stare up the wide central hallway. It had had only a cursory cleaning, and was now free of bloodstains and severed body parts, but there were scorch marks on the golden stone in multiple places.

“What was it?” Ravoud whispered. “Only Rasevaan seems to have seen the thing and not been cut by it; she said the assassin threatened her, but then destroyed the warding arrays rather than attacking. She described a beam of light that made a sound like a giant wasp. Some of the men… Some of them have been talking, through the painkillers. They’ve said similar. What kind of new weapon are we facing?”

“Not a new weapon,” Justinian said with another sigh. “A very old one. Artifacts of the Elder Gods; the Church has three in its vaults. I will let you inspect one, if you wish. There are others in the possession of the Imperial Treasury; the Royal Museum in Svenheim has one actually on display. By this point in history, most of them which are going to be found probably have been, and have made their way into the hands of institutions with the sense to secure them away from use. It’s rare enough even to see one, but nearly unheard of to see one wielded in combat. I had believed anyone who might possess such a thing would be too intelligent to wave it around.”

“There’s a curse on them?” Ravoud asked. “That would be just like the Elder Gods…”

Justinian shook his head, managing a weary smile. “It was a weightless blade which cuts anything and burns as it touches, Nassir. It hardly needs a curse to be impossibly dangerous to handle. This raises very troubling questions.”

“Indeed.”

Both turned to greet Khadizroth, who now approached from the central chambers where he and the others lived. The dragon nodded to them before continuing.

“I’ve examined such devices myself; several of my kind possess such treasures in their hoards. I agree with your assessment, your Holiness. It has been a long span of years since one fell into the hands of anyone fool enough to use it. Few relics of the Elder Gods are safe to handle at all. Regardless, I have done what I can for now to stabilize the three survivors

suffering organ damage from that…thing. I am confident, however. They are in a deep sleep; give me the night to gather my strength and some resources from the planes, and I will finish their healing on the morrow. This process is very involved; I will not risk a subject’s health by approaching it unprepared.”

“Your aid is greatly appreciated, Khadizroth,” Justinian stated, inclining his head deeply.

The dragon nodded in return, to exactly the same degree, then shifted his gaze to Ravoud.

“After that, Colonel, I will begin regenerating the less life-threatening injuries suffered by the others. You should know that this will take time. I can do it without dipping into stockpiles of priceless components as most human witches would need to, but you were correct that the process is a great challenge. It is worse in this case.” The corners of his mouth turned down in disapproval. “That accursed implement cauterized what it cut. Life-saving in the immediate term, in some cases, but it makes the procedure more invasive than it might otherwise be. I will need to cut again, to have an open wound with which to work, and draw forth new flesh from there. It’s doubtful I can attend to more than one limb in a day, and there will be pain involved. While I don’t expect any of the soldiers will decline, they deserve to know, in advance, what to expect. If any does refuse, I must respect his wishes.”

Ravoud turned to him directly and bowed deeply. “I cannot tell you how grateful I am for this, Lord Khadizroth,” he said, his voice finally quavering. He had held up stolidly during the long night and morning with the strength of character Justinian had come to expect from him, but Nassir Ravoud would much rather have lost an arm of his own than have to watch soldiers he had hand-picked and trained suffer through what they had last night.

“Indeed,” the Archpope agreed gravely. “We are truly blessed to have you with us. This is a debt I doubt we can repay.”

“There is no debt,” Khadizroth said immediately, waving one hand. “I am only sorry I failed to save more lives. I was attempting to track the interloper, and underestimated the carnage she had wrought until I saw it firsthand.”

“The generosity of dragons is justly legendary,” said Justinian with another deep nod. Khadizroth returned the gesture again, neither of them commenting on the other half of that old proverb: the greed of dragons was just as legendary. The Archpope had not missed Ravoud’s formal address of him; never before had he called him Lord Khadizroth, nor shown any inclination to interact with him at all unless required. It was worth remembering that this dragon, even more than most, was dangerous for his canniness and proficiency at recruiting followers more than for his innate power, especially bound as he was. Not for the first time lately, Justinian wondered if the Crow’s curse was adequate to keep this creature safely housebroken.

“If it is not too sensitive a question,” Khadizroth continued, “what do we know about the attacker? I have spoken with the others; she fended off Kheshiri and the Jackal quite deftly, which is…surprising.”

“Little progress on that front,” Justinian admitted. “Our focus has been on preserving what life we still can. I assure you, I would have made time to track this villain, but there is simply nothing to go on. Sister Rasevaan has determined that she teleported in and out with the skills of a highly advanced mage, someone able to penetrate even the wards on this temple, but the attacker herself showed no arcane talent—nothing but skill at hand-to-hand combat. All we can be sure of, then, is that she did not work alone.”

“Your Holiness,” said Ravoud, now frowning in thought, “I meant to discuss this with you, anyway. I don’t believe this was meant as an attack.”

“Oh?” Justinian raised an eyebrow, as he and Khadizroth both turned to the Colonel.

“The only two uninjured soldiers were Alsadi and Rossiter,” Ravoud explained. “Relatively uninjured, at least; Rossiter was struck in the head, but they were the first to encounter her, and the intent was clearly to neutralize them non-fatally. An interesting choice, considering the intruder’s…later pattern. In fact, she choked Alsadi unconscious, and then left him on the floor. He doesn’t know how long he was out, obviously, but it can’t have been more than a minute.”

“Unconsciousness from oxygen deprivation simply doesn’t last that long,” Khadizroth agreed, nodding.

“Then,” Ravoud continued, “she entered the adventurers’ compound, under a stealth effect, where Kheshiri caught and intercepted her. She put down the succubus, the assassin, and the enforcer—all quite deftly, but again, without killing, which had to have been a deliberate choice. Given the armament we know she had, lethal force would have been easier, if anything. She fled from Lord Khadizroth upon his appearance, however.”

He paused, swallowing heavily, before continuing.

“Thereafter, she began using increasingly deadly force as she fled toward an exit, the wards having been tightened once the alarm was raised. Based on this sequence of events, the picture that emerges isn’t an intended assault, otherwise it would make no sense to avoid killing our higher-value assets when she had them at a clear disadvantage. Likewise, she apparently wasn’t expecting to find a dragon here.”

“You think this was a scout?” Khadizroth asked.

Ravoud’s frown deepened. “It’s not so simple. A trained spy would have dealt with Rossiter and Alsadi more definitively, and hidden them somewhere they wouldn’t quickly be found and raise an alarm. And there’s the final chapter of the debacle; Rasevaan said the attacker didn’t speak, but clearly threatened her. We know she could easily have killed her, but apparently…didn’t want to.” He turned directly to the Archpope. “Strange as it sounds, I think what we had was a combat asset, not an intelligence one, attempting to fulfill the wrong role, and not wanting to cause harm. Faced with overwhelming force and not knowing how to evade or deflect it, she retaliated when confronted. But it seems she was just trying to look around, and get out. The damage she caused…it begins to seem more like panic than malice.”

The dragon’s eyes had narrowed to emerald slits. “How curious. I follow your logic, Colonel, but… If that is the case, why send a warrior to do a spy’s job—and do it so poorly? Who could have the resources to train such a person to such a dangerous level of skill, equip her with such weaponry, and then nearly squander her on a mission so ill-suited? Surely not the Empire. Many complaints I have against the Silver Throne, but its competence I have learned to respect. At least, in its current incarnation. Likewise, the Black Wreath is neither so brash nor so inept. Who else would dare assault this temple?”

“In fact,” Justinian said smoothly, “this raises a thought which dovetails neatly with one of my own. Walk with me, please, gentlemen. I would like to continue this discussion in a place less…open.”


“Despite your loss of situational control, I have to consider this mission an overall success,” Lord Vex assured her. Milanda wasn’t yet clear on what arrangement allowed her three compatriots to reach the Imperial spymaster so quickly, but here he was in their shabby safe house, only a few hours after her escape from Dawnchapel.

Hours in which she had not slept.

“The Holy Legion’s true nature is hardly a secret,” Vex continued. “Justinian can keep a project like that out of the general public’s view, but we’ve known what he was about from the beginning. We know their numbers, and simply based on what you describe, you utterly decimated them. That damage alone undoes long months of his work, and sets back his military ambitions vastly.”

Milanda closed her eyes, and didn’t speak for a moment, until she could be certain her voice would be relatively even. It was raspy with lack of sleep, but fairly satisfactory, all things considered.

“It can’t have been more than a couple dozen men. How much damage could that be?”

“Understand the stage at which he stands in building his army,” said Vex. “The elite core of the Holy Legion as it was before last night was no threat to the Empire—but it was a core of carefully-selected, highly trained, fanatically loyal soldiers. From such a seed is an army sprouted. He still can grow that army, but his options now are either to grow one from lesser stock, or start again. Either is satisfactory, from our perspective. In any case, the intelligence you found was nearly as valuable.” He narrowed his eyes. “Forgive me, but you are certain the name you heard was Kheshiri?”

“I realize I didn’t perform to your standards as an Intelligence agent,” Milanda said wearily, “but I am a courtier, Lord Vex. Remembering unusual names is a skill I have practiced. You sound as if you recognize it.”

He nodded. “That one is dangerous, even by Vanislaad standards.”

“What makes her so dangerous?”

Vex gave her one of his sleepy smiles. “Well, we have a number of less-reliable reports which are positively hair-raising, but for example…the most interesting tidbit from her known exploits is that the succubus Kheshiri ran the Black Wreath for several weeks during the Enchanter Wars. She assassinated and replaced Elilial’s own high priest. From what we pieced together after the fact, the Wreath themselves never even caught on; the goddess herself had to step in. Kheshiri is a major problem, especially in Justinian’s hands. Hm… That means the other man you describe was likely Jeremiah ‘Thumper’ Shook, renegade Thieves’ Guild enforcer. He is many orders of magnitude below her pay grade, but he’s been missing for over a year, and connected with Kheshiri at her last sighting. We’ve yet to puzzle out the nature of his connection with her, but I suspect there’s a link there to how she got loose in the first place. The Wreath had her imprisoned as recently as two years ago. The others you describe are known, as well.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Who were they?”

“Of course, any elf can wear a suit, for all that they rarely do, but between the description and his demeanor, that elf was likely the Jackal, a professional assassin also linked recently to Justinian’s plots. And…there is the dragon.”

“If the Archpope is in league with the Conclave,” she began quietly.

Vex shook his head. “That much I don’t fear. Only a gold would mess around with the Church. There are few enough of those, and only Ampophrenon here in Tiraas—and he is still the head of the Order of Light, whose relationship with the Church has been carefully watched and is still notably frosty. No, the Conclave’s missing dragon has also been connected with the Archpope recently, albeit tentatively.” A thin smile flickered across his face. “Less tentatively now, it seems.”

Milanda frowned. “I thought the Conclave spoke for all the dragons. At least on this continent.”

“That is what they claim,” the spymaster said with a shrug, “and I for one and not inclined to call them liars, even when I know they are. I strongly suspect wanting to find and control Khadizroth the Green was one of their central motivations—for coming here, if not for forming in the first place. Khadizroth, too, would have little regard for a human institution like the Church. Justinian has some manner of hold on him. If we can find that, and break it…” His smile expanded to almost genuine proportions. “We are on good terms with the Conclave to begin with. Setting them against the Church would be…so very, very interesting.”

Milanda nodded mutely, her gaze wandering.

After a moment, Vex reached out to touch her shoulder. She snapped her eyes to the invading hand, then to his face. His expression was…attentive, and strangely gentle, which made her instantly suspicious.

“I have a cleric on my core staff—an Izarite, but trusted and loyal, with the highest clearance. He’s necessary for my ministry’s operation, and especially the health of many of my most important personnel. I’m going to make him available to you, Milanda. I’d like you to make an appointment. You can be assured anything you say to him will remain private, even from me.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need healing,” she said tonelessly.

Vex stared down at her for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy, I train spies. You know what one of the biggest hurdles is for them to overcome? All the technique of the craft can be learned, just like any trade. But for spies and soldiers alike, the constant problem we have in training our people is that human beings in their right mind simply do not want to kill. We must learn to do so, for the greater good. And…even with training, many retain a strong reluctance. That is why I keep a mental healer on staff. All too often, my people come back with damaged minds and hearts. And they tend to suffer more for the things I order them to do, than for what is done to them.” He glanced aside for a moment before meeting her eyes again. “I’ve made use of his services myself. If I found myself not needing them, I would have to question my fitness for duty.”

“I’m fine, thank you,” she said with a tight smile.

“Don’t bother,” he retorted, his tone too kind for the brusque words. “You have an excellent poker face, but remember who you’re talking to. I started in this business by seeing through nobles and courtiers when they tried to hide their intentions. Milanda… If you were under my command, I would remove you from active duty until you had been cleared by a mental healer to return to it. As it is…” He sighed softly. “I can only recommend, strongly, that you see one. If not mine…whoever you can trust to keep the secrets that must be kept. I’m sure you have contacts of your own. But do not underestimate the seriousness of this, please. You would be dangerously unhinged if you could unexpectedly kill or maim that many people without suffering for it, and you can become dangerously unhinged if you leave this unaddressed. Injuries to the mind are not less severe than those to the body. Either can leave you unable to do your job.”

“Thank you,” she repeated. He stared at her. After a moment, she averted her gaze, and spoke more softly. “I…really, thank you. I will…think about what you said. You’re probably not wrong.”

Vex nodded. “In the meantime… Try to get some sleep, at least. I can tell you haven’t, yet, and it’s a start. For now, we’ve a space in which to breathe before making another step, and you should be well rested before you plan one. The enemy is reeling and has no means to retaliate directly. Oh!” He smiled again, like a lazy, well-fed cat. “And I have some good news.”


“A pattern emerges,” Justinian said, turning to face them and folding his hands at his waist. His expression was precise—serious, concerned, with only the faintest knowing hint in the cast of his eyes and lips. Khadizroth would perceive it, but the effect on Ravoud would be subconscious. “Information at this point is too sketchy to be certain, but I have learned to trust my intuition in these matters. Khadizroth, I hate to prevail upon you when you are already exerting yourself so greatly on behalf of our fallen, but I must ask a favor.”

“I’ll take no offense at the asking,” the dragon said mildly. “There are things I cannot do, of course, and things I will not.”

“It goes without saying,” Justinian acknowledged, as Ravoud stepped over to them after securing the door of the small office. “And I will emphasize that while this matter is time-sensitive, the restoration of our people is of course of greater importance. If it can be only one or the other, I will prioritize the care of our injured.”

Khadizroth nodded.

“I need,” Justinian went on pensively, “to request your aid with a fae divination.”

The dragon’s eyebrows shifted upward fractionally. “Oh? I am, of course, aware that the Archpopes have control of the majority of oracular resources left in the world.”

“Ah, but not so,” Justinian said with a faint, careful smile. “The Church, it is true, owns as many divinatory objects as it has been able to secure—but their use by a layperson such as myself is a very different matter from the personal answers which can be garnered by a master of fae craft.”

“True,” the dragon agreed. “But I am certain you have made use of those tools, and as such will be aware that oracular prophecy is…less than helpful when it comes to specific, tactical information.”

“Of course. But I believe there are certain types of questions which lend themselves more readily to the voice of oracles, is it not so? Yes or no questions, the finding of lost things…”

Khadizroth nodded again. “Go on…”

“As I said, I see the beginnings of a pattern.” Justinian began to pace back and forth—very slowly, not sacrificing the dignity of his carefully-cultivated presence, or giving the impression of frenetic movement. “The timing of this, for one. I cannot ignore the fact that one of my secret projects recently brushed against one of the Empire’s. I of course immediately extended an olive branch, but I would not expect the Throne to take any such at face value.”

“That would explain the presence of an agent, poking around,” Ravoud said softly. “But…not why they would poke here, or send someone so clearly unsuited to the task. The Empire has plenty of people skilled at such work. The very best.”

“The Empire also would not equip an agent with a beam sword,” Khadizroth added, his lips quirking again in disapproval. Justinian made a note of that. An affectation, meant to build rapport, and perhaps strengthen the connection he was deliberately forging with Ravoud? Or did the dragon have some personal antipathy toward those weapons?

“Indeed,” he said aloud. “But there is more. Our Emperor and Empress have succeeded in part by, effectively, dividing the roles Theasia played between them. The old Empress was generally well thought of, but had a reputation for unpredictability and vindictiveness. These two… Sharidan plays the politician very well, and has devoted much effort to cultivating the goodwill of the people at large, as well as various specific parties. Nobles, trade guilds, the like. Eleanora, by contrast, is the iron hand in his velvet glove. She is known to directly control Lord Vex, and to be the actor behind the Silver Throne’s most vicious pursuit of its interior enemies. The loved, and the feared. And I have never before heard any suggestion that they are in anything but perfect accord.”

“Go on,” Khadizroth urged, frowning now.

Justinian stopped his pacing, turning to them again and putting on an intent, earnest expression. “The Emperor has not been seen in public for several days. When I went to see him, urgently, in the middle of the night, he did not appear—I had an audience with the Empress, Lord Vex, and most interestingly, Milanda Darnassy.”

The dragon quirked an eyebrow. “Who?”

“One of his Majesty’s mistresses,” Ravoud explained.

“Hm.”

“Very odd indeed,” Justinian agreed. “I wasn’t aware that she had any role in politics—nor was Bishop Darling, who accompanied me, and he takes great pains to know such details. And while neither of them harbors much love for my humble self, it is very much against Sharidan’s nature to snub a sitting Archpope by refusing an urgent request for a meeting.”

“I think,” Khadizroth said slowly, “I begin to see the direction of your thoughts, your Holiness.”

Justinian nodded, assuming a grim little smile. “While last night’s assault wouldn’t be characteristic of the Empire as a whole, or at least of the Tirasian Dynasty, I have no trouble imagining Empress Eleanora ordering such a thing—if, that is, she were for some reason operating without her husband’s moderating influence. And that brings me to my question. One which is very important on its own merits, but which I’ve a hunch may reflect upon our problems here.” He spread his arms in a gesture that was half benediction, half shrug. “Where is the Emperor?”

Justinian watched them consider it, and permitted himself the luxury of a knowing smile, since it would only add to the impression he sought to create here. It might be nothing—but who knew what the damage Rector had wrought upon the Hands might have done? And if Sharidan were out of pocket, for whatever reason… Well. If Khadizroth the Green were the one to find him, then if something unfortunate befell the Emperor soon after that, the dragon would make a very convenient chew toy for Eleanora. And just when he was beginning to think Khadizroth was become more trouble than he was worth.

There were no setbacks in the great game. Only changes on the board.

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12 – 38

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She opened the door and stepped out to find Lord Vex staring at her. Seeing the unflappable spymaster visibly startled was quite satisfying, but Milanda kept her expression fully under control, calmly pushing the door shut behind her.

“Ah, good,” she said. “This is the right address, after all. I was a tad uncertain; this method of travel is still rather unfamiliar to me.”

“I can imagine,” Vex replied. “That was…quite an entrance.”

Milanda gave him an innocent smile. “What? Stepping through the door? I did say I would meet you here. I hope I’ve not kept you waiting long; I had to return to the base and gather a few supplies.”

“That,” he said with the ghost of a smile in reply, “is a closet, as I’m sure you noticed. When you said you had a more discreet way of entering, I assumed you were planning to use the kitchen door in the rear. Ah, well, whatever it is you did, this is undoubtedly better. None of the neighbors should have reason to recognize you or mark anyone’s comings and goings, but the more secrets we can keep, the better.”

His gaze flicked momentarily to the device attached to her ear, and then the box she was carrying, but just as quickly returned to her eyes, betraying no emotion now that he was over the initial surprise. As expected from such a man.

“Quite,” she agreed. “With regard to that, I hope you don’t object to me keeping you in the dark…”

She trailed off as he held up a hand to forestall her explanation. “Unnecessary, Ms. Darnassy. In this matter, I think it best that no one be told anything they do not absolutely need to know, given the risks involved. Should you or any of your new assistants fall into the hands of the Church, or anyone else, it’s best they have nothing to reveal under coercion. You, in particular, given your access to the secrets of the Hands. I trust you will keep this in mind when conversing with the associates I have found for you.”

“Of course.” Milanda glanced around the room. It was sparsely furnished, with only a few rustic-looking wooden chairs scattered about and a threadbare rug covering the floorboards, but this could have been an upper parlor in any mid-sized urban home. The wallpaper was peeling slightly and the floor was liberally marked by dents and scuffs; this was clearly not a well-off neighborhood. “I take it this place is secure, then.”

“Relatively,” he said with a shrug.

She snapped her attention back to his face, frowning. “Relatively? Lord Vex…”

“I assure you, I have taken no unnecessary risks,” he said, again with that vague smile. “Absolute security does not exist, Ms. Darnassy. The world is made of connections; there is always some thread that can be followed. The current situation is that our enemies have reason to fear action against them but none to expect it specifically, and especially not from you. This house was acquired via means not in the portfolio of my agency’s assets, which leaves no paper trail the Hands can easily access. Under the circumstances, it is adequate.”

“I see. If I may ask…?”

“Considering you are being asked to operate from here, that’s reasonable,” he said nodding. “This is a Thieves’ Guild safehouse, arranged for us by Bishop Darling.”

Her frown deepened. “Darling? Lord Vex, he was with the Archpope!”

At that, Vex grinned outright. “On the contrary, Antonio Darling is with no one. His agenda is his own, and all his allegiances—to the Church, the Throne, the Guild, whoever—are rivals he plays against each other for his own purposes. I am not absolutely certain what he ultimately wants; possibly only the thrill of the game. His strongest sympathies are with the Guild’s rather libertarian philosophy, however, and in this matter in particular he is already in our confidence. It may be best if you keep your own interactions with him to a minimum, but I anticipate no betrayal from that direction.”

“I see,” she said warily. “Well, then. And these…assistants?”

Vex made a face, half smile, half grimace. “Ah, yes. No sense putting that off any longer, I suppose. Come, I’ll introduce you.”

“Well, doesn’t that just fill me with confidence,” she muttered, but followed him into an upstairs hall and then down a staircase.

This terminated in a pretty typical living room, furnished in a comfortable but shabby style with clearly secondhand accouterments. The front door stood not far from the foot of the stairs, and a lit fireplace opposite, with cords of wood stacked nearby; there was no sign of an arcane heating range. Apparently, the Guild didn’t bother to keep its personnel in excessive comfort. A selection of charms and folded articles of clothing—all in black—were laid out on a low table before the patched sofa. Most immediately interesting to Milanda, though, were the three men present.

“Gentlemen,” Vex said, “meet Milanda, from whom you will take orders for the duration of this mission. Milanda, may I present Andrew Finchley, Thomas Rook, and Jacob Moriarty, most recently of the Imperial Army.”

All three had whirled upon her arrival from poking through the things on the table; Moriarty reflexively came to attention and saluted. Her first thought was that it was almost poetic: she was looking at a cross-section of the Empire itself. Rook was an ethnic Tiraan, his black hair too long to have been recently in the Army (assuming he cared a whit for regulations), and so tousled he’d either just awakened or was one of those guys who deliberately kept it that way. Finchley was a pale Stalweiss, with rare reddish hair and a smattering of freckles across his cheeks. Moriarty, who now relaxed, looking self-conscious, was a dark-skinned Westerner, taller than the other two and more strongly built…but then again, that might have been an illusion caused by their lack of his good posture. To judge by their names, though, they all three came from frontier families.

“Glad to meet you,” she said politely, dipping her head.

“The honor is ours, ma’am!” Moriarty practically shouted, then clamped his mouth shut.

“Sorry about him, ma’am, he’s not good at improvising,” Rook said with a grin. “Omnu’s balls, man, we’re not in the Army anymore. You can give it a rest.”

“I actually don’t think he can,” Finchley said. Moriarty shot them both a sullen glare.

“I should let you know,” Vex said in a distinctly dry tone, “these men were discharged at the rank of private, and all three are rated as Class D troopers.”

“Oh?” Milanda turned to look at him again, raising her eyebrows. “Forgive me, but I’m not familiar with the Army’s terminology. Class D signifies…?”

“You’re aware of the letter grading system commonly used in academia?”

“Of course.”

“It’s like that.”

She shifted her attention back to the three ex-soldiers, two of whom looked abashed, though Rook was grinning as if someone had just told a joke. “…ah.”

“What they are,” Vex continued, “is trusted. These three have been privy to state secrets at the highest level and amply proved their discretion, as well as their loyalty to the Throne. They are, additionally, already connected to our basic problem, albeit tangentally. They are currently in hiding from a Hand of the Emperor who means them harm.”

Milanda frowned. Trusted, but not reliable. That was not ideal, but still better than the opposite combination. Aloud, she said, “How so? What did you do to provoke him?”

“Nothing,” Finchley said with a sigh.

“Eh, wrong place, wrong time,” Rook said airily. “We were nearby when he went crazy.”

Moriarty cleared his throat. “If I may, ma’am? He was trying to use us as leverage against Professor Tellwyrn. We were most recently stationed at Last Rock, you see. The Hand threatened harm to us if she didn’t comply with him.”

It did not escape Milanda’s memory that much of this had been kicked off by Tellwyrn’s unexpected visit to the Empress. “You’re that close to the Professor?”

“Nope,” Rook chuckled. “Also, she was already trying to do what he wanted. I cannot emphasize enough that the man went absolutely batshit crazy.”

“Uh, ma’am? Lord Vex?” Finchley, at least, had the sense to look worried. “You said this was related… Do you understand why it is the Hand was acting so…unstable?”

She glanced at Vex, who nodded gravely to her.

“That’s as good a lead-in as any,” Milanda said. “I trust it has been emphasized to you how very secret this matter is?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Moriarty said crisply, nodding.

“National security,” Rook added with a wink. “Treason, trials and beheadings if we blab. All in a day’s work!”

“They use hanging, not beheading,” Moriarty muttered.

“We, uh, were also told this was possibly going to be very dangerous,” Finchley said, still a little nervously. “Honestly, after the hellgate, I don’t know how much worse it can be, but life has a way of surprising me.”

Rook snorted. “Which hellgate? Oh, wait…” He glanced at Vex. “Are we allowed to tell her about that?”

Milanda also looked at Vex. “How did these three end up being privy to state secrets, by the way?”

“Ma’am,” Rook said grandly, “you have the pleasure of being assisted by the three unluckiest sons of bitches in this blessed Empire!”

“No, previously classified materials are still classified,” Vex said, exasperation beginning to peek through his reserve. “Especially matters you were warned were Sealed to the Throne. Breaking that seal will draw the attention of the Hands, which is absolutely the last thing this mission needs. As you will understand if you will allow the woman to proceed.”

“Thank you,” Milanda said with what dignity she could muster. “With that established, then, this is the situation. Right now, the magical system empowering the Hands of the Emperor has been tampered with by hostile forces, which is causing them to behave irrationally, while also developing new powers.”

“Holy shit,” Rook whispered, the levity abruptly vanishing from his face. Finchley gulped loudly.

“Additionally,” Milanda went on in a grim tone, “the same hostile actors have been responsible, through the same means, for the lack of an heir to the Silver Throne being born. The specific perpetrators of these assaults have been stymied, for the moment, and their ability to take such action destroyed. We’re working on reversing the damage. Most immediately of concern to us, this was all done at the command of Archpope Justinian of the Universal Church.”

There was a beat of silence while they pondered that.

“Why, though?” Moriarty asked, frowning. “The Church can’t just take over the Throne. I don’t see how destabilizing the Empire helps Justinian.”

“The Church is one thing,” said Vex. “Justinian, specifically, is another. He is deeply ambitious and quite interested in gaining political power. I note that you did not seem surprised to learn he would do such a thing, Mr. Moriarty, only curious about his endgame. The Universal Church holds sway all over the world, and within the Empire it is the most concentrated single power aside from the Throne itself. In fact, the Church was, for a time, poised to take over political control of the Empire after the Enchanter Wars. Under pressure from several cults and Houses, it participated in the creation of the Tirasian Dynasty instead. The precedent does exist, though. There are many potential scenarios in which a sitting Archpope could put himself forward as a political leader if the need for one should suddenly arise.”

“Well, you’re right that he’d totally do something like that,” Rook said thoughtfully. “He was starting in on Professor Tellwyrn last year. I never did figure out how that helped him, either. I think the man just plain doesn’t like anybody who might have more power than him.”

“If it’s not another secret, what’s the source of this information?” Finchley asked.

“That is the core of the problem, and the reason for this mission,” said Milanda. “I am the source of this information, and more than that I can’t tell you, at least on that subject. That is because all the means through which it was acquired are extremely sensitive state secrets, which absolutely cannot be revealed. This means the government has no evidence to bring against Justinian, and any action taken against the Church by the Empire will, to all appearances, be unprovoked hostility.”

“Which,” said Vex, “considering his established aims, Justinian could easily use to justify efforts to further weaken the Throne and usurp its authority.”

“Crap,” Finchley muttered.

“So,” said Milanda, “he has placed the Silver Throne in such a position that it cannot openly retaliate against his attempts upon it, nor even exercise overt self-defense.”

“And so,” Rook said with a broad grin, “that leaves less-than-open means!”

“Exactly,” said Milanda, smiling in return.

“I need to make something explicitly clear,” Vex said seriously. “In this matter, despite the various ties each of us has to the Imperial government, we are not officially acting on its behalf. This mission is undertaken by private citizens, without Imperial sponsorship. That means that if you run into any trouble, no matter how severe, the Empire will not and cannot come to your aid. No one in the Empire, even in Intelligence, knows this is going on, and if they did, they would be legally unable to intervene. Legally, what we’re going to do will be the actions of vigilantes, and the Empire itself will be obligated to take punitive action against you if you are caught.” He smiled languidly. “Do please try very hard not to get caught.”

This time, all three men swallowed.

“You have, at least, been provided with tools,” Vex continued, gesturing at the table, “which I see you have already taken the liberty of investigating. These are charms and enchanted equipment of beyond state of the art quality. There are few organizations which could provide them, of which the Throne is, of course, one. This operation being unsanctioned, all of these were acquired strictly off the books and can’t be traced back to any Imperial department—at least not directly—but their presence will be suggestive, at the last. You should try not to let them be observed, and definitely not captured, by any enemy. The collective value of those materials, gentlemen, is greater than the sum total of the resources that have gone into your upkeep and training from birth until now.”

Finchley very carefully laid the shielding charm with which he had been toying back on the table.

“I will confess,” said Vex with a frown, “all this leaves me…concerned. It is a critical mistake to rely on fancy equipment above skill. I’ve sent agents to their deaths before, but only for the sake of missions of the utmost importance in which no other alternative existed. I am unaccustomed to squandering lives the way I very much fear I am, with you.” He glanced at Milanda. “The specifics of your operations will not be up to me, and it’s best I know as little about them as possible. I do suggest, however, that you try to avoid combat situations.”

She nodded.

“Understood,” Moriarty said, saluting again. “We will exercise the utmost care! And I’ll begin studying the manuals of this equipment immediately.”

Vex actually blinked. “Manuals?”

Moriarty hesitated, looking uncertain. “I…yes, sir. Per policy of Imperial Command, all enchanted equipment is to be issued with full documentation.”

“Omnu’s balls, you goober,” Rook exclaimed. “The man just got finished explaining how off the books this whole thing is. There’s no documentation!”

“But…” Moriarty was beginning to look increasingly alarmed. “…but…we need to be acquainted with any tools to be used before—”

“It’s like talking to a brick wall,” Rook said to Finchley.

“It’s more like talking to Moriarty.”

“Actually, now you mention that, it’s a little like talking to Tellwyrn.”

Vex drew in a deep breath. “I can acquire documentation for you. That is probably a better idea than leaving you to figure out how to use these on the fly, as it were.”

“We would be tremendously grateful, my Lord,” Moriarty said smartly, already looking relieved.

Milanda cleared her throat. “And on that subject, I have a little something for you as well.” Vex glanced at her, betraying no surprise, as she held up the metal box she carried and opened it. “I trust you lads noticed my…jewelry?”

“It’s quite fetching!” Rook said gallantly. “Unconventional, I like it. Elvish?”

“Not exactly,” she said with a smile, holding the box so they could see its contents: within lay three more earpieces, identical to the one she wore. “I brought one along for each of you. Help yourselves. Please go ahead and put them on; they fit over the ear, like mine.”

The three men reached forward to take the proffered devices with clear uncertainty. Moriarty fumbled a little to get his affixed in his ear, Rook pausing to critically examine his before doing so.

“Feels weird,” Finchley said with a grimace, prodding at the device now hooked over his ear. Vex watched all this with aloof disinterest, despite the acute attention Milanda knew he must be paying.

“Oh, I dunno, I bet it makes us look dashing!” said Rook, once again grinning like a fool. “Well, maybe not you two, but in my case—”

“Hello, boys.”

All three yelled in surprise, clapping hands to their ears; Moriarty leaped sideways as if he could get away from the voice suddenly sounding in his head. Vex raised an eyebrow, glancing at Milanda.

“Gentlemen,” she said, not hiding her own amusement, “meet Walker. Since you’ll be based in this house for the duration, and I will need to come and go on a separate schedule, we need a way to stay in contact. These gadgets will provide it. You can keep in touch with me and with each other this way, as well as Walker, who is helping to oversee this operation from another—more secured—location.”

“Walker, that’s an unusual name for a girl,” Rook muttered, poking at his earpiece.

“Really, that’s the part of this you’re hung up on?” Finchley said dryly.

“He has a point,” Walker said, audibly amused. “What an interesting group of helpers you’ve found, Milanda.”

She refrained from pointing out that she hadn’t found them.

“This is incredible!” Moriarty enthused. “Instantaneous two-way communication—and with such small devices! Why, the smallest magic mirrors are bigger than dinner plates, and those are the masterworks of significantly powerful mages. This really is beyond state of the art!”

Vex shot her a sidelong look, but continued to withhold comment.

“So, uh, is there anyone else we can expect to meet, here?” Finchley asked, uncomfortably twisting his earpiece.

“Hopefully not,” Milanda assured him. “At least for now.” Gods, it wasn’t as if she had anybody else to inflict on them except for ancient artificial intelligences and dryads. Based on what she’d seen so far, the thought of these three meeting a dryad was almost as troubling as the thought of a dryad getting involved in this in the first place.

“Whichever of you is playing with your earpiece, kindly cut it out,” said Walker. “Those devices are designed to muffle irrelevant feedback. If you’re rubbing hard enough to make the noise I’m hearing, you are going to wear a hole in your epidermis.”

“In my what?” Rook exclaimed, but jerked his hand away from his ear.

“Well, then,” Finchley said, folding his arms in a clear attempt to keep his hands away from his ear. Milanda sympathized; she wasn’t used to the sensation of something hanging over and partially in her ear, herself, though her life at court had equipped her with enough restraint not to fidget with the thing. “What, exactly, is it we will be doing, ma’am?”

She hesitated. What, indeed? Milanda had plans, but rather general ones at the moment—more general than five minutes ago, adjusted for having become acquainted with her “staff.” Just what to do with these three was a real question. Loyal, trustworthy…clearly not very competent. Vex was right: it would be a miracle if they got through this without anybody getting killed.

“Our first mission, tonight, I will be going on alone,” she finally said. “As we’ve just demonstrated, you’ll at least be able to keep in touch. What I learn will help determine our next steps, which will enable me to form more coherent plans. Right now, all this is in a very early phase. The long and the short of it, gentlemen, is that the Church has highly secret programs which have been used to harm Imperial interests. Just as the Throne itself cannot afford to reveal its hand by taking direct action, the Church will have to disavow its own secret operations if they are exposed or damaged. And that means we have a measure of impunity with which to damage them. In short…” She smiled. “We are going to stir up the waters, and see what fish we can catch.”

Lord Vex cleared his throat. “And with that, I must take my leave. Milanda, if I might have a word with you before I depart?”

“Of course, milord,” she said politely. “I’ll be right back, boys.”

“We’ll be right here,” Finchley said somewhat fatalistically.

Milanda followed Vex into the kitchen, where he headed straight for the rear door. He paused before reaching for the knob, turning to her.

“You seem to have this well enough in hand,” said the spymaster, “and as I emphasized, the less I know about the details from here on out, the better. I can be questioned by Hands of the Emperor at any time. There is one thing, though.”

“Yes?”

He was studying her closely, now, with enough intensity that the degree of his interest was clear despite his customary reserve. “I find myself suddenly reminded of an old incident report I studied. Years ago, during the reign of Empress Theasia, it was recorded that the Hands of the Empress captured and detained an extremely dangerous fairy known as the Dark Walker. I have no further knowledge of the creature, which means they kept her in one of the very few—perhaps the only—facility which is totally outside my purview.”

“My, you really do have thorough records,” Milanda said pleasantly.

Vex stared at her in silence for a moment, then shook his head. “Ms. Darnassy… Please, be extremely careful.”

“I assure you,” she said in a more serious tone, “I am taking every possible precaution, and some I very recently would not have thought possible. This is no time for needless risks. Beyond that, however, I believe we should stick to our established rule. No information shared beyond what is absolutely necessary.”

“Quite,” he said with a sigh. “I dearly hope you know what you’re doing, for all our sakes. No one else can.”

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12 – 31

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Milanda emerged from the barracks again, which was still like stepping indoors. It had taken a little doing to figure out how the Infinite Order’s toilet facilities worked; the basics were familiar, but the controls were totally alien. In the end, she had had to ask the computer for instructions, which was humiliating, even though she knew the talking machine wasn’t capable of passing judgment or finding humor at her expense.

Strange and awkward, yes, but also luxurious. The facilities allotted for security personnel compared favorably to any luxury she had enjoyed in the Palace. Once she figured out how to work them, at least.

After that, navigating the kitchen had been relatively simple. All she wanted was a cup of strong tea. The exact blend which had been produced by the fabricator was unfamiliar; the computer had identified it as Earl Grey. After one sip, Milanda decided she was going to have to come back for more of this when there was time.

Regardless, she had taken only enough time to refresh herself with a quick wash and an invigorating drink before heading back to the security hub. The barracks was still displaying Hawaiian Night, and while she didn’t know what Hawaiian meant, the warm tropical darkness was enough to make her want to stretch out on one of the bunks and let the birdsong and night breeze carry her off to sleep. She had no time for that, though. Feeling somewhat re-invigorated despite the long time she’d been awake, she stepped out.

Walker was still hunched over her screen; for a being whose very name implied movement and who had spent years in a cell, she seemed remarkably devoted to that machine.

“Feeling better?” the fairy asked without looking up.

“Much, thank you. I’ll be back shortly; we have a lot more to do, and I won’t feel comfortable loafing in my own bed until it’s done. But these events do need to be reported as quickly as possible.”

“Just a moment, please,” Walker said as Milanda made her way through the maze of crates toward the door. “I’ve uncovered something you might find relevant—or at least, worth carrying to the Emperor.”

“Oh?” She turned to face her. Ever since the Avatar’s ritual, she felt stronger and more vigorous, but it had been a long day. Another cup of that tea would’ve been heavenly…

“With our intrusive friend thoroughly offline for the time being, I’ve been examining his pattern of incursions, most of which are every bit as fumbling and incompetent as I told you. I wouldn’t absolutely swear his tampering with the Hands program was deliberate or malicious.”

“Considering where he was working from, I rather think it was,” Milanda said impatiently. “You said this was important…”

“So,” Walker continued, “I looked farther back, to that other incident ten years ago. The one where this system was accessed under Scyllith’s credentials from Fabrication Plant One.”

“Puna Dara, yes. I remember.”

“I’ve identified the changes made,” Walker said, fingers gliding across the screen and bringing up boxes on it. Streams of numbers and text, mostly, but she also displayed a picture of a plant for some reason, shifting so Milanda could see it and turning to look at her. “That one didn’t alter the existing functions of the Hand system, but added something to it. Another signal piggybacked on it, disseminated through what I think was a specific wing of the Palace.”

“Oh?” Despite her fatigue, Milanda’s attention sharpened.

“You see,” Walker said, folding her hands in her lap and regarding Milanda with an expression that was becoming familiar, “all the Infinite Order’s biological projects can be broadly sorted into two categories: those which do and do not require transcension field energy to survive. There are, unfortunately, several sapient strains in the first group, notably elves. But as is the case with any life form created with and from transcension fields, the ongoing interaction—”

“Walker,” Milanda interrupted, “is this going to be another ten-minute speech, filled with flowery language and dramatic pauses and sweeping revelations I’ll find out later from the Avatar were just your opinion?”

The fairy stared at her in silence, mouth slightly open.

Milanda raised an eyebrow. “Can you summarize it?”

After another moment of silence, Walker snapped her mouth shut, her nostrils flaring once in a silent snort of irritation which served to accent the uncanny daintiness of her nose.

“The system powering the Hands of the Emperor has been modified, in this event ten years ago, to disseminate the essence of a magical plant called silphium through part of the Palace. The Emperor’s residence, I think. The essence of this would render any female mammals in the radius of influence infertile while within it, and probably for a few years thereafter.”

Now, it was Milanda’s turn to silently stare. Shock hit her first, followed by comprehension and the uncomfortable familiarity of realizations which made all too much sense. And then, rage.

She clamped down on all of them to be dealt with later.

“I see,” she said aloud. “Thank you very much. You were right; that is important, and well worth telling the Empress. I’m glad you stopped me.”

“Are you,” Walker said tonelessly.

Milanda nodded, and turned to go. “All right, I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t cause trouble.”

“Thanks to your security protocols, there’s a stark limit to what trouble I can cause.”

“Well, don’t test them, please.” At the door, she paused, one hand on the frame, then turned and smiled at the ex-valkyrie, who was still staring at her. “When I come back, you can give me that speech. It sounded like it would’ve been interesting.”

“Just go,” Walker snorted, finally turning back to her computer.

The door hissed shut behind Milanda, and she stared at the screen, for the moment not touching it. After a few seconds, a smile began to stretch across her features. Shaking her head, she chuckled, and then got back to work.


“If this is anything less than disastrously urgent, I am going to have one of them flogged,” Eleanora announced as she emerged from her chambers.

Lord Vex awaited her in the hall, looking just as composed and well-rested as she, which meant he was probably every bit as weary and disgruntled at being rousted at one in the morning. They had both taken time to groom and compose themselves, as it would not do to appear before someone like the Archpope in any state which so much as hinted at weakness.

“May I suggest Bishop Darling in that case, your Majesty,” Vex said diffidently. “Assaulting a sitting Archpope would create…complications.”

She gave him a flat glance, at which he smiled blandly, then turned to stride up the hall without bothering to point out the havoc the Thieves’ Guild would unleash if she actually had their Bishop and former Boss whipped. His comment had been as facetious as hers, and she didn’t keep Vex around for his skill as a humorist.

They were intercepted at the next intersection of hallways by, if not the last person Eleanora had expected to meet at this hour, someone who placed high on the list.

“Oh, your Majesty, perfect,” Milanda Darnassy said in a tone of obvious relief, curtsying deeply. “I’m so glad I found you so quickly. I have a great deal to report.”

“Yes, so I would imagine,” Eleanora replied. “I’m very glad to see that you’re safe, Milanda. Right now, however, we are on the way to deal with an urgent matter of state, as you might surmise from Lord Vex’s presence in the harem wing at this hour. Please make yourself comfortable and we shall be back with you soon.”

“Urgent matter?”

“Yes,” the Empress said somewhat impatiently. “Not to downplay the significance of your own tasks, but I have to prioritize. Things have become increasingly hectic in your absence. Now, if you will excuse me…”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Milanda said quickly, curtsying again, but continued as Eleanora swept past her. “Does this happen to involve the Universal Church?”

The Empress slammed to a halt, turning to give the concubine a piercing look. Vex regarded her thoughtfully, as well.

“Now why,” Eleanora asked quietly, “would you ask that?”

“I suspected the Archpope might do something, which is why I came up to find you in the middle of the night,” Milanda replied. “You should know, your Majesty, that I have not yet repaired the damage done to the Hands of the Emperor, but for the moment insured no further changes will be made, and ascertained that the source of the problem came from within the Grand Cathedral.”

The Empress and her spymaster gazed at Milanda in silence.

“Also, I’ve just learned that there’s a related problem which has been causing infertility in every woman in this wing of the Palace.”

Eleanora, despite all her training and experience, felt a furious expression descend on her features. She drew in a long, deep breath through her nose.

“You are busy, of course,” Milanda said smoothly, unperturbed. “If you need to address something urgently, I can of course wait; the situation below appears stable, for the moment.”

Eleanora turned a flat look on Vex. “Upon consideration, Quentin, I think we had better hear Ms. Darnassy’s detailed report first. His Holiness can await my convenience a while longer.”

“His Holiness is likely to take that as a hostile gesture,” Vex pointed out.

The Empress drew back her upper lip in an expression that was not a smile. “I have never cared less about Justinian’s feelings than at this moment.”


The solarium was a downright eerie place at night; even with the fairy lamps ignited, the ferns and flowers didn’t look quite right. The entire room was laid out to be beautiful in the sunlight, which its towering glass walls were enchanted to magnify appropriately, Tiraas’s climate being what it was. In Theasia’s day, this had been a private refuge, but Sharidan had installed suitable arrangements of furniture to use it as a private and informal place to receive petitioners.

It was after three in the morning by the time Justinian and Darling had finally left. Eleanora had remained quiet through most of their presentation, watching them. Neither man had shown surprise at Vex’s presence, though both had given Milanda speculative looks. It was impossible to say how far outside the harem wing Eleanora’s lack of personal warmth toward the Emperor’s favorite concubine was known; they had no shortage of servants, and servants did gossip. If anybody in Tiraas bothered to keep up with such seemingly irrelevant social minutia, it would be those two. Regardless, Eleanora could not help noticing that Milanda and Darling seemed to take mirrored roles in the discussion: quiet, a step behind their respective leaders, not overtly involved, but listening. Even in the presence of Empresses and Archpope, Antonio Darling was not a man to step back and shut up, which suggested that he was as much in the dark and being led along as Milanda. This both amused and intrigued her.

Vex had led the way in the discussion, asking questions and with occasional prompts from Eleanora. Justinian would not fail to find some significance in that, which was fine with her. Let him chase his tail. She had likewise deflected his inquiries about the Emperor’s absence, which could potentially lead him to discovering actually worthwhile facts, but there was nothing to be done about that.

The whole time, Milanda’s revelations had laid firmly in the forefront of her mind while she listened to Justinian spin a web of artifacts of the Elder Gods and Punaji cults.

“It’s all so very…plausible,” she mused after their guests had been absent for nearly a full minute. “His account is reflected in Milanda’s. It perfectly matches hers if he is telling the complete truth… And just as perfectly if he was behind all our recent troubles and now urgently covering his derriere.”

“He cannot know how much we know,” Vex observed. “Vagueness and scrupulous adherence to all possibly known facts would be vital in constructing a suitable story. Of course, if he is telling the truth, we cannot afford to risk worsening the situation by acting rashly.”

“How much do you know about this…Rust?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said immediately. “If it is a matter occurring in Punaji territory, I can assure your Majesty of two things: my people will have observed it, and if it has not been brought to my attention, they did not deem it significant. He described it as a cult, which fits. The lack of organized religion among the Punaji leaves fertile ground for those to crop up. They either implode on their own or are cleaned out by Rajakhan.”

Milanda cleared her throat diffidently. “Excuse me, your Majesty, but…he was not telling the truth. I have access to a great deal more information down there than the Archpope can possibly know, and my source strongly indicated his own efforts to use the Elders’ machines have been halting and clumsy in comparison to Theasia’s, and now Walker’s.”

“Yes, and we should discuss that, now that no one is waiting on us,” Eleanora said sharply, turning to her. “I believe I heard Sharidan specifically tell you not to let that creature out.”

“Not specifically,” Milanda replied, gazing right back at her in complete calm. “Specificity was impossible, given the geas he was under. I’m fortunate to have escaped that; it must be tied into the Hand system. Regardless, yes, releasing the Dark Walker was a risk. It was a calculated one, however, taken with ample precautions, and has paid off. If any harm comes of it, I will of course take full responsibility.”

Eleanora stared at her, firmly concealing her surprise.

Milanda has always been downright submissive around her, which was the lion’s share of the reason Eleanora had never liked her. Some women legitimately did enjoy being told what to do, and the lack of responsibility that came from being kept. Milanda, though, had a spine and plenty of personality; she was just selective about where she displayed them. Knowing that, having seen it at a distance, made Eleanora both mistrust and personally dislike her for the constant diffidence she showed. The woman before her now was totally self-possessed, unintimidated, and seemingly constitutionally incapable of bowing her neck, despite her complete courtesy. If only she’d been like this for the last few years, Eleanora suspected they would be friends by now. As it was, the sudden change was deeply alarming, especially in this situation.

She leaned back in the throne-like chair positioned with its back dramatically to the view over the city, and drummed her fingers on the armrests. “Very well; for now, I will have to be content with that. Frankly I cannot say anyone could have done better under the circumstances. Your efforts are greatly appreciated, Milanda.”

Milanda simply nodded in acknowledgment.

“I will, of course, get all available information on the Rust immediately from my department,” said Vex, “and instruct my agents in the field to get more. If we are to follow Ms. Darnassy’s suggestion and consider this a red herring, however, that cannot be our primary focus. Counter-action against Justinian is obviously necessary, but we are constrained.”

“Yes,” Eleanora said, thinking aloud. Gods, it was late; she was so damned tired. “The Throne cannot act directly against the Church without overwhelming evidence of malfeasance. Our evidence, though solid, might not be compelling enough, and anyway the need to protect Imperial secrets means we can’t even present it. Going for Justinian directly would create massive pushback from the cults, as well as the population in general. In the worst case, it could be the Enchanter Wars all over again.”

“It is, of course, never my policy to do anything directly, your Majesty,” Vex said with a thin smile.

Milanda cleared her throat. “Our actions against the Church’s computer was designed to leave the connection open while destroying his ability to use it, at least temporarily. It may be possible to act through that.”

“Rather than acting,” said Vex, “I suggest you see if you can gather more information through it. This matter with sylphreed is a great deal less sensitive than the systems which maintain the Hands. Using forbidden artifacts of the Elder Gods to terminate the Tirasian line of succession is a story that holds together—sensational, but plausible. If we can obtain evidence, we can quite possibly have Justinian deposed. The Sisterhood, the Guild, and the Veskers would back us, and those are the three who matter.” They were, he did not need to add, the three cults which had effectively overthrown the previous dynasty after it had used the Enchanter’s Bane on Athan’Khar.

“That’s another thing,” said Eleanora, “and the thing which disturbs me. You said this change which added sylphreed to the system was done from Puna Dara. Ten years ago, and by someone more skilled in the system’s use than Justinian’s lackey. Now, he points to Punaji lands as the source of this new problem. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

“If the Rust is something Justinian has been monitoring,” said Vex, “or possibly even something he created, the matter still hangs together neatly.”

“But then why would their attack have been so much neater and more successful than what he has done now?” She shook her head. “Too many questions, not enough answers… Quentin, I am considering how much we can trust Elder Mylion. He was unsurprised to learn of Tellwyrn’s involvement, and from the moment she mentioned dryads, I have been thinking we might find elven representatives useful if we could find one trustworthy.”

“I vetted Mylion as thoroughly as possible on short notice,” said Vex. “I am still in the process of investigating him comprehensively. I urge your Majesty to wait for the outcome of that before involving him in something this sensitive. At the least, that will give him more time to demonstrate his trustworthiness, or lack thereof.”

“Sensible,” she agreed, nodding. “Which leaves us with the question of what to do about Justinian in the meantime.”

“Indirect action of the sort that seems to be needed is normally my department,” he said with a grimace, “but matters are complicated by the current situation with the Hands. They will unavoidably learn of it if I enact a major campaign against the Church’s assets; then, inevitably, they will learn why. In their current state of instability, I shudder to think what they might do. If the Hands attack the Church…”

“Yes, we’ve been over that,” she said wearily.

“The Avatar arranged for me to have some of the Hands’ advantages,” Milanda reminded her. She was now staring at Eleanora with an intensity that made her uneasy. “Walker is doing most of the actual work through the computers; I may see what I can find down there that will enable me to come and go from the facility without having to go through the Palace. I know they have methods of teleportation; I’ve had to use one to get around.”

“She is totally off the books,” Vex mused, “unknown to the Hands… Or at least, not known outside the context of his Majesty’s personal life. Which also creates the advantage of deniability if she is caught.”

“Milanda has far too much on her plate already to wage a shadow war on Justinian,” Eleanora exclaimed.

“Alone, certainly. But with some assets to leverage… She can investigate and possibly impair his operations in the city, perhaps even breach some of his facilities. In fact, I have just the thing: Panissar recently dumped three men in my lap who have ample experience keeping Imperial secrets, are not officially connected with the government, and are in fact in hiding at the moment.”

“What?” Eleanora demanded. “Who?”

The spymaster gave her a little smile. “Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty, most recently stationed at Last Rock. If your Majesty has not been briefed, the short version is that the Hand currently out there threatened their safety to get at Tellwyrn, and they fled here, found a good lawyer, and got themselves discharged from the Army on the grounds of malfeasance by superior officers.”

“Where would those three idiots get the money for a lawyer who could pull that off?”

“That is officially a secret, which I have not deemed important enough to investigate directly, but given where they’ve been, I’d say either from Tellwyrn herself, Duchess Madouri, or Teal Falconer. Would you like me to find out?”

“Yes,” she snapped. “And I cannot believe you are suggesting involving those characters in this, Quentin.”

“They aren’t known to be especially competent,” he admitted. “Panissar had some godawful idea about involving them in my watch program over his Majesty, perish the thought. This is another matter, however. What’s most necessary here is their ability to keep a secret, and that much at least is proven. As for the rest… Ms. Darnassy will be the brains and heart of this operation, she simply needs more pairs of hands. And there is something to be said for cultivating expendable assets.”

“Very well,” she said wearily. “Given the corner we’re in, it’s the least terrible idea we are likely to find. Proceed.”

“Dryads,” Milanda said softly.

Eleanora turned to her, frowning. “I beg your pardon?”

“You mentioned Tellwyrn and dryads,” Milanda continued, still giving her that unnerving stare. “Implying that she mentioned them when she was here before.”

The Empress frowned. “Yes?”

“And it did not occur to you to mention the involvement of dryads to me before sending me down to where you knew they were?”

Vex, face impassive, subtly shifted to face Milanda, idly tucking a hand into his coat pocket.

“You’re right,” Eleanora said after a moment of tense silence. “That was a grave oversight. I apologize, Milanda. I’m very grateful no harm came to you because of it.”

Milanda nodded curtly. “Fine. I will return below and investigate the possibilities of getting in and out of the facility directly, avoiding the Palace. I’ll return when I know something; that should give Lord Vex time to make arrangements of his own. And I devoutly hope that any further oversights will be due to the confusion of these trying times, and not because you personally don’t care for me, Eleanora. Considering what is at stake. Excuse me.”

She turned and strode out of the room without waiting to be dismissed, shutting the door gently behind her.

Eleanora stared at the doors for a long time after she was gone. “Quentin… When are things ever going to start becoming less complicated instead of more?”

“Rest easy, your Majesty,” he said, smiling. “We’ll all be dead eventually.”

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12 – 25

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“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Eleanora said as she entered the kitchen.

“Not at all, your Majesty.” Elder Mylion did not rise to greet her, but bowed politely from his position cross-legged on the floor, next to some kind of spell circle. “I’m certain your time is precious and your business important.”

“I also needed directions,” she admitted, stopping to peer around. “At the risk of sounding like an aristocratic cliché, I’ve never actually been in this room.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t usually look like this,” he said gravely. “Your staff seems quite efficient.”

Indeed, the harem wing’s kitchen was something of a mess. Mylion was surrounded by barrels, bags, and in some cases, disorganized heaps of food. Fruits and vegetables, beans and rice, various grains, sausages, spices both bottled and bagged, countless other items. There was some pattern to the disorder, things being generally separated into categories, but almost every container had been opened and some of its contents spilled out, as well as samples contained in the dozen ritual circles laid out on the flagstones all around him.

“All kitchen staff are currently being examined by my people,” Lord Vex said, lounging against a nearby counter and looking bored as usual. They were alone in the kitchen at present, Imperial Guards being stationed outside all the doors.

“Gently, I hope,” Eleanora said.

“Of course, your Majesty. At present, our assumption is that these are all loyal and dutiful servants, and the assumption will stay thus until we have solid evidence otherwise. In fact, according to the Elder’s findings, we may not have a spy here at all.”

“Oh?” She turned expectantly to the shaman. “Your message said you had found widespread sylphreed contamination.”

“Widespread is putting it mildly,” Mylion replied, frowning up at her. “Your Majesty…this is most peculiar. Most unnatural. I began by examining a random sampling of food containers, and found the presence of sylphreed in every one of my samples, without exception. Then I went through them more carefully; it took most of the morning, but I have determined that every single container in this kitchen, from the largest barrel to the smallest spice bottle, is tainted.”

“We’ve brought him samples from the main Palace kitchens,” Vex interjected, “and those apparently turned up negative. Only the harem wing’s supplies are affected. And that is a logistically significant finding; all the supplies that come here start there.”

“When I have finished here,” Mylion added, “I mean to prepare a sampling of the plant for your alchemists to examine, so they can test for it themselves. Alchemical methods may yield different results, or at least more precise ones. If I may be permitted to take some samples from the stocks here, I believe I can distill the essence of sylphreed for them from the food without needing to send to a grove for some. That would take weeks, at minimum. My own grove does not cultivate it.”

“Of course,” said the Empress, nodding. “Whatever you need.”

“Moving on,” he continued, “I began a series of more intensive divinations. Your Majesty… It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Every bean, every grain of rice, every infinitesimal speck of spice is touched by sylphreed. At least, every one I have tested. Obviously I’ve not examined every single iota of food in the kitchens that intensively, as I’ve not spent the requisite months at it. But at this point, I’ve been over what I consider a representative sampling, and am confident that is what I would find.”

Eleanora frowned, then looked between him and Vex. “That seems…excessive.”

“It almost completely rules out a physical delivery vector,” the spymaster agreed, nodding. “The only possible way such could be done would be to somehow distill sylphreed into some kind of liquid and spray all the food.”

“Which,” Mylion added, “would alter the texture and taste of most of it, and also would be impossible to do without attracting notice. Either your entire kitchen staff are involved, or none are.”

“When you say it rules out a physical delivery vector…”

“Yes, Lord Vex, I think the Empress should know of your other finding,” Mylion said seriously.

Vex actually sighed. “I’ve had my aide collate reports on the personal lives of every staff member who has worked in this wing of the Palace during Emperor Sharidan’s entire reign thus far. Beginning with the kitchen staff, but I expended it to all servants, and then soldiers. Your Majesty… I have to admit a serious failure in having failed to catch this before now, but we were simply not watching for patterns of this kind, and don’t habitually examine these aspects of everyone’s family life. I assure you, that is about to change. But to the point, none of the female staff, not one, have become pregnant while on duty here, nor within two years thereafter.”

“Two years is a highly significant time frame,” Mylion continued. “I assume a person of your education is aware of the way elves metabolize food?”

She nodded. “Yes, go on.”

“Two years,” the Elder explained, “is approximately how long the effects of sylphreed would remain in an elvish woman’s aura if she ingested the plant. That is an elf, though; our auras are slow to change once affected. In the case of humans, the dose would need to be administered weekly, at least, to remain effective. That is a large part of why your kind’s over-harvesting all but wiped it out. That, and habitat destruction, which…is a topic for another time.”

“If the substance is not being delivered physically,” she said, “and is affecting the humans exposed the way it would an elf…”

“And the third significant fact,” Mylion said, nodding, “is the distribution throughout the entirety of your food supply. Your Majesty, I don’t believe the actual plant has been introduced to your food. Its effects appear to be delivered by the dissemination of its magical essence into this wing of the Palace.”

“I had no idea that was even possible.”

“It is fae magic of an extremely sophisticated level,” he said seriously. “And it has its limits. There would be no way to focus the effect on the Palace or even the people here; that would take a constant, massive supply of sylphreed, applied to a constantly maintained spell. It would require less of the plant to just administer the drug conventionally to everyone. However, impregnating—forgive the pun—the food supplies here with its essence is another matter. There is a sympathetic principle at work, since these items are all biological in origin, most also being plants, and all are food. For this? A sufficiently skilled caster would not even need a sample of sylphreed. He or she could project its essence directly, from memory, assuming they had internalized it at some point in the past.”

“You suggest not just any shaman could do this,” she mused. “How much does this narrow the prospects?”

“Considerably.” Mylion finally rose, smoothing his hands along his vest. “Your Majesty, I am not certain I could do this. Examining the evidence, I can conceive a method in reverse, so the speak, but the actual doing would be exceedingly…tricky. Fae magic is far more organic and less methodical than the arcane, or even the divine. Each caster’s methods are different, at least subtly. But this? Only the most powerful shamans could create this effect. And that means the oldest. Your Majesty… If an elf is behind this, it is almost certainly a grove Elder. That being the case, we must know who, and address this recklessness. The tribes cannot tolerate such brash intervention in the Empire’s affairs; it threatens us all directly. Done by another sovereign state, this would be…”

“An act of war,” she said quietly when he trailed off.

Mylion nodded, his expression grim, almost haunted. “I must insist upon knowing who is responsible, if your agents are able to learn.”

“You insist?” Vex asked mildly.

“Quentin.” Eleanora’s tone of reproof was gentle, but unmistakable. “Elder Mylion is an honored guest, and is putting forth great effort for us, not to mention protecting our secrets—all of which are favors. Don’t forget that. Besides, in his position it is an extremely reasonable request. However,” she added to the shaman, “I must warn you, Elder, that if we identify and apprehend the culprit, the Empire will exercise its own right to justice in this matter. He or she is very unlikely to be handed over to any other party, for any reason.”

“I understand that,” he agreed. “I personally will not contest it, nor do I imagine that any of my fellow Elders would. I simply want to know who is behind this. We must identify any such behavior among our own, and yank it out, stem and root. The groves cannot afford to be implicated in antagonizing the Empire this way.”

“If anything,” Vex said lazily, “this raises prospects beyond the groves. This has clearly been going on longer than the Conclave has existed, so I doubt the dragons in the city could be involved. However, after the recent business in Viridill, we have word that Khadizroth the Green is not part of the Conclave, and has been associated with actors hostile to the Empire.”

“A green dragon could do this,” Mylion mused, frowning. “Any but the very youngest.”

“Also,” Vex added, “Mary the Crow has been repeatedly seen in the city of late.”

Mylion’s expression soured further. “The Crow could definitely do this. My intuitive response to the thought, though, is that it isn’t likely.”

“Oh?” Eleanora raised an eyebrow. “She is certainly hostile to the Empire, and this kind of roundabout scheme is far more her style than anything overtly violent. There is, in fact, a historical precedent of her interfering in lines of succession.”

“Yes,” the Elder agreed, “but as I said, actions of this kind bring danger to all elves. If she were caught, her position among the groves would be damaged irreparably. Even as tauhanwe as she is, the Crow values elves too much to take the risk, I think, much less to provoke the Elders this way.”

“And is that an impression, or certainty?” Vex inquired.

“An impression,” Mylion admitted. “One of which I am fairly confident, but it is not proof.”

Vex nodded. “Proof we don’t have. Not yet. But this is definite progress.”

“Doesn’t the Palace have wards against magical attack?” Eleanora demanded.

“The very best in existence, your Majesty,” Vex replied, his face falling into an irritated scowl. “But there is, as they say, always a bigger fish. I assure you, I will be revisiting this subject at length with our magical defenders in the days to come.”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said impatiently, waving a hand. “For something like this to be in constant effect for ten years, through multiple cyclings and upgrades of the wards, it would have to be done by an entity with a clear and decisive magical advantage—over the Empire itself, which employs the best defenses available. That seems implausible.”

“It is, at the very least, highly mysterious,” Mylion agreed.

“If,” she continued, “it were penetrating the wards. But Quentin, do these wards function like shields around the Palace, or like detection fields within it?”

“That…depends on the wards in question, your Majesty,” he said, frowning in thought. “The wards are complex and multi-layered; that is an absolute necessity, considering they are meant to counter all four major schools and every known manifestation of shadow magic. Not all of them have identical coverage.”

“Then,” she said, “it seems to me that the most obvious blind spot someone could use against our defenses is if this magic were being cast from inside the Palace.”


The castle rose from a hill in the forest, surrounded by an infinite sea of trees stretching to the horizons on all sides. In fact, from its vantage, there should have been ample view of the mountains rising in the center of the island, the coast on the opposite side, and human cities in the distance, but that was not how the Twilight Forest worked.

It was a beautiful structure in the traditional Sifanese style, with high, subtly angled stone walls, battlements and arrow loops, and wooden walls rising above the fortifications, surmounted by decorated, sloping roofs. The boughs of massive, ancient cherry trees rose from multiple courtyards, standing higher than the walls in defiance of the castle’s apparent military purpose. They were heavily laden with pink blossoms, despite this being entirely the wrong season. It was also the wrong season for the thick snow which was falling over the castle, and only over the castle. The effect was beautiful, though, and that was what mattered.

Their feet crunched only subtly in the snowfall as they crossed the bridge to the castle’s opened gates, Emi skipping along ahead, carefree as a lark. Tellwyrn followed more sedately, looking appreciatively around at the scenery.

The tanuki dangled limply from her hand, her fingers clutching him by the scruff of his neck. He whimpered, softly and constantly, front paws covering his eyes, rear ones trailing despondently along in the snow. Considering how fat he was, and how thin Tellwyrn’s arms were, it looked downright odd that she could carry him with no apparent effort.

“Good day.”

There had been no one present when they first approached, but suddenly another kitsune was there, just inside the gates. Taller than Emi and with raven-black ears and tail, she was dressed in a much simpler style of robe, with a traditional sword and short sword thrust in her sash. She regarded the approaching party calmly, one ear twitching.

Tellwyrn stopped and bowed to her.

“Kyomi!” Emi squealed, bouncing up to her. “Look, look who’s come to visit! It’s Kuni-chan!”

“I can’t believe you still let her call you that,” Kyomi said dryly to Tellwyrn. “You know it just encourages her.”

“Yes,” Tellwyrn replied with a faint smile, “but arguing about it would only encourage her more. Someday, I really must find time to come back and play those little games, but I’m afraid I have responsibilities right now, and no free time to endlessly push that boulder up that hill.”

Kyomi nodded in simple understanding, while Emi tittered in delight, now skipping around her with her tail bouncing gaily.

“Well met, then; on whatever business you have come, it is always a pleasure, Arachne. What brings you?”

“Oh, she’s looking for Kaisa,” Emi reported, coming to a stop nearby and smiling coquettishly.

“Ah. I thought she was waiting for someone. Kaisa has been unusually reserved since she got back.”

“Nice to know I’m so predictable,” Tellwyrn muttered. “So she is here?”

“Of course she is,” Emi said reproachfully. “I brought you here, didn’t I?”

“In the courtyard just beyond,” Kyomi said, half-turning to nod at an interior gate which opened onto a snow-dusted garden, past the wider but shallower gravel-paved ground onto which the castle’s main gate opened. “She doubtless is expecting you.”

“Then I’d best not keep her waiting,” Tellwyrn said with a sigh. “Something tells me this is a conversation I won’t enjoy.”

“They never are,” Kyomi replied, smiling mysteriously and ignoring Emi’s gales of laughter. “Will you have time for a game of go while you are in the country, Arachne? None of my sisters play with quite your aggressive style.”

“I have to return to my school more urgently than usual, I’m afraid. You know, if you’re that eager to see me embarrassed, you could always visit me, for once.”

“I could do that, yes,” the solemn kitsune replied in a tone suitable for commenting on the weather.

“Go right ahead,” Emi added with a broad grin which showed off her long incisors, pointing at the quivering tanuki still dangling from Tellwyrn’s hand. “I’ll keep an eye on that for you.”

“Thank you, Emi,” the elf said courteously, dropping him to the snowy planks of the bridge with no further ceremony. She paused only to bow again to both women before proceeding toward the inner gate.

“What’s this about?” Kyomi inquired, studying Tellwyrn’s erstwhile captive, who sat huddled in the snow, seemingly without the nerve even to try to run.

“Well,” Emi said with predatory relish, “it seems Maru has been tricking travelers into pit traps with the promise of giving them directions if they do him a favor.”

“Yes,” Kyomi said disinterestedly. “And?”

“And,” Emi drawled, “he tried that on Kuni-chan, and she didn’t fall for it.”

“Well, of course she didn’t.”

“And then, rather than honoring his promise, he tried to run.”

Very slowly, Kyomi turned her head to stare down at the tanuki. Her ears shifted to lie flat backward, and one hand drifted to rest on the pommel of her katana. “Maru.”

He let out a muted wail, prostrating himself in the snow before them.

“Anyway,” Emi continued gaily, “she has a claim on him, obviously. For now.”

“Yes,” Kyomi agreed, “for now. A favor is owed. And after that, we will discuss manners.”

Maru fainted.


“And I’m afraid that’s all we’re going to get out of him for now, your Holiness,” Delilah said apologetically. “He’s…focused, now.”

“So I see,” Justinian replied, favoring her with a brief smile before transferring his gaze back to Rector, who was puttering about his machine, carefully pulling levers with slow, smooth motions. As each slid into place, one of the attached power crystals hummed to life, putting off a steady glow. “It’s quite all right; I have long since resigned myself to appreciating the fruits of his work without necessarily understanding them.”

“Sorry about the delay, your Holiness,” Ildrin added, hovering at his other shoulder on the little porch overlooking the cave in which Rector’s workshop was set up. “After the last…incident…”

“Yes, of course,” Justinian said calmly. “Not to worry. Since our man of the hour is again distracted, ladies, were you able to discern from anything he said at the time whether the disconnection was deliberate?”

“You mean, on the part of the other…Avatar?” Delilah frowned. “Honestly, your Holiness, I have no idea. I was concentrating on keeping him…well, stable. He took that disruption rather hard at the time, though he bounced back from the disappointment unusually quickly. I take that to mean he is close to a breakthrough. His episodes always become both shorter and more frequent in proximity to real progress.”

“He mentioned it as a possibility,” Ildrin said quietly. Delilah turned to her, blinking in surprise, and she shrugged. “You’re better at keeping him happy when he’s in a mood, Dee. At times like that, I concentrate on listening to his muttering. There’s sometimes something worthwhile amid the noise.”

“There’s always something worthwhile,” Delilah said a little defensively. “Every thought he has is worthwhile. They just aren’t always sensible to others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to be disparaging,” Ildrin said, nodding. “I certainly don’t doubt Rector’s brilliance. But as you were asking, your Holiness, he mentioned that possibility while talking to himself. I don’t…think he came to a conclusion in that regard. He also muttered about it being an overload in his own system, or just another random failure…”

“I see,” the Archpope mused. “Regardless, I appreciate you keeping me informed. It sounds as if this attempt may yield significant results. It would be quite pleasant to observe one of these successes firsthand, for once, rather than hearing of it after the fact.” He smiled at each of them before turning his focus back to Rector, who had just activated the magic mirror which formed the focus of his sprawling device.

The peculiar symbol appeared on its surface, followed by the circle slowly burning itself down to nothing, and then the mirror turned white.

“Avatar template loaded,” a passionless voice said, crackling from interference. “Warning: personality subroutines inactive. Social subroutines inactive. Ethics parameters disabled. Overall intelligence reduced to ten percent of optimal value. Avatar individuation is impossible. Do you wish to continue using the template in debug mode?”

“Yes!” Rector cried impatiently. “Yes, as always, let’s get on with it!”

“Yes,” Archpope Justinian repeated very softly, watching. “Let it begin.”

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12 – 14

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Despite the late hour, Darling was alert and energetic even without the aid of strong tea, much less coffee. The sense of a new and interesting game suddenly afoot did wonders for his personal motivation. Price claimed his addiction to intrigues was worse than anything he could eat, drink, or smoke. If it kept him upright, moving, and sharp close to midnight after a long day, though, he wasn’t going to complain. Particularly as his current adventure was a response to an urgent summons by Imperial Intelligence. Whatever this was, he didn’t want to go into it at less than his best.

The neighborhood through which he strode was quiet at this hour, and in fact quite safe, being an upscale place occupied chiefly by pricier businesses and thus heavily patrolled. He was probably the scruffiest person it had seen all day, attired presently as Sweet the thief rather than the Bishop, but luckily there were no soldiers immediately in sight to question him. Not that he couldn’t talk his way out of that, but it didn’t do to keep the Imps waiting.

His steps slowed briefly as he passed through an intersection, glancing down the side avenue, only a few blocks into which he had twice found the Elysium.

Nah.

The address he had been given was an Imperial safe house, which of course he knew despite no such explanation being included in the message summoning him. In fact, this was one of the safe houses he wasn’t supposed to know about, not that he planned to enlighten whoever he met. Darling liked Vex well enough and meant no ill toward his department or the regime it served, but just coexisting with a man like Vex necessarily meant hoarding whatever advantage he could secure.

He stepped into a back alley, which was actually clean; the space had been designed as a service entrance for the three buildings clustered around it, and rich folks had their standards. The good ones applied the same standards to spaces occupied by their servants. He strode smoothly past the first two doors, well aware that his approach had to be observed, and grasped the handle on the third without bothering to knock.

The door opened instantly and silently, and he slipped through, pulling it shut behind him. There was no one present to greet him, leaving him to choose between going down a darkened hallway and descending a narrow flight of stairs. Light and faint voices came from the bottom of the steps, so that way he went.

It occurred to him in passing that this would be a fantastic place for an ambush. His message had come from an Imperial functionary he knew, though, and Vex had no reason to pull a stunt like that. Still and all, he tucked his fingertips into his sleeves, where he had throwing knives concealed.

A moment later, he removed them, upon stepping into the room at the bottom of the stairs and seeing who awaited him. Quentin Vex himself was present, lounging against the wall; General Panissar stood near the door in full uniform. The third man was dressed casually, in a suit that had seen no wear and was of good quality but clearly not tailored for him; it had probably been procured from some department store particularly for this exercise. Sharidan Julios Adolphus Tirasian, Emperor of Tiraas, assuredly did not have any such garments in his own wardrobe.

“Please don’t,” the Emperor said quickly when Darling started to kneel. “The formalities have their place, Darling, but there’s nobody here to impress. Let’s not bog this down with ceremony, shall we?”

“As you wish, your Majesty,” he said diplomatically, straightening up and adjusting his lapels. He glanced at Vex, then Panissar, then back at the Emperor. “Well, here we are, then! I didn’t even know what to expect and I’m still alarmed. Shall I assume the Emperor isn’t nearly as unprotected here as he looks?”

“Obviously,” Panissar said with disdain. “I’d feel better if I could have brought a few Imperial Guards, but the situation being what it is…”

“My people are keeping watch,” Vex said with a yawn. “My best people. Blanketing the district with them would risk drawing eyes, which is exactly what we don’t want. A handful of my top operatives represent more effective power than a platoon, anyway.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to you like that?” Darling asked Panissar, who snorted derisively. “Sorry, I don’t know a better way to lighten the atmosphere of impending doom. What’s going on, how bad is it, and how can I help?”

“To begin with,” Sharidan said seriously, “anything and everything discussed here is Sealed to the Throne.”

He paused for acknowledgment, and Darling nodded deeply in a gesture that verged on a bow.

“The situation is this,” the Emperor continued. “Something has interfered with the Hands of the Emperor. All of them are exhibiting mental instability, coupled with the sudden possession of powers they never had before.”

“Holy shit,” Darling whispered. “Ah…excuse me.”

Sharidan actually smiled. “Not at all; I’d say that is the correct reaction.”

“We are working to contain this situation,” said Vex. “Intelligence and the Army are both shifting assets to strengthen protection of the Imperial family, and monitor any ongoing projects in which Hands are participating. As discreetly as possible, of course; as effectively as can be done without informing the assets in question of the nature of the problem. It may not prove feasible, but ideally we can resolve this before it turns into a crisis.”

“Hang on,” said Darling. “The Hand who usually sits on the council with us. Is he still at Last Rock?”

Vex gave him a sleepy, mirthless little smile. “Indeed. Verification of the problem has come from that quarter; we’re aware of the potential for escalation, there, and watching it carefully.”

“Professor Tellwyrn has been helpful and surprisingly restrained,” Sharidan agreed.

“Excuse me,” Panissar growled, “but in the version of events I was told, the woman broke into the Imperial Palace, assaulted one of the Empress’s companions and vandalized her bedroom.”

“In the course of delivering a friendly warning, yes,” Sharidan replied, smiling. “Which, for her, was helpful and surprisingly restrained. She bypassed an annoying bureaucracy in order to deliver a message, and I can’t say I don’t sympathize with the impulse, irksome as her methods are. Last Rock isn’t the worry, here; I am. The Hands surround and follow their Emperor above all else. Their current instability is a grave threat; one has already tried to arrest Eleanora. It has been decided,” he continued with clear displeasure, “that the best response in this situation is to remove me from a position where I can do anything to help.”

“Your Majesty knows why,” Vex replied calmly, “and clearly are in agreement. It’s not as if we could force you to comply, nor would.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sharidan said with a sigh. “I do know. I don’t have to like it, though. For the time being, in any case, the Empress will maintain the government.”

“You need a place to hide,” Darling guessed.

“Exactly.” The Emperor nodded. “Which is why we asked you here, your Grace.”

He frowned. “Don’t you have safe houses?”

“Many. All of them, however, are known to the Hands,” Sharidan replied. “They will be able to find me anyway, given the need, but not as easily as if I am in a place unknown to them. Each Hand can sense my direction and approximate distance from their position, but that’s it. Getting to me will take time, and involve figuring out a route, gauging the situation…”

“And if one or more start moving in his direction, we’ll know,” Vex added. “This operation will involve me posting agents to watch both his Majesty and the Palace, and any other Hands in circulation. As soon as one makes a move at the Emperor, we’ll intervene to extract him. Unfortunately, Hands have unrestricted access to all of Imperial Intelligence’s assets, including the power to give orders to my personnel with the Emperor’s own authority. They can find any of our bolt-holes nearly as easily as they can the Throne’s own.”

“We are addressing this as best we can,” said the Emperor, “by keeping the agents in question in the field with orders not to report back until they are told otherwise. The Hands, meanwhile, have been informed that all of this is a gambit on my part to flush out a conspiracy. Which is roughly true; they simply weren’t told they were its target. The downside of needing to keep them pacified is that I cannot curtail their authority while we work. This should suffice for a while to keep them away, but if the emotional instability they’ve begun to demonstrate worsens, one or more is likely to make an irrational move.”

“This whole situation is disastrously unstable,” said Darling. “I trust something is being done to rectify the root problem?”

The Emperor sighed. “Clearly, something has interfered with the magic powering the Hands. Unfortunately, there are no specialists on that particular…arrangement. I have sent someone I trust to attempt to address it, but… It may not be possible.”

“I hope you have a longer-term plan in that case, your Majesty,” Darling said.

Sharidan nodded. “She is to attempt a repair if it can be done; if not, her instructions are to destroy the entire system.”

“Can that be done?”

“Anything can be destroyed,” the Emperor said softly. “Whether that proves feasible in this instance is another matter. She will do what she can, and we have other plans ready to be activated if she fails, which are not germane to our discussion here.”

“What you need,” Darling said slowly, “is someone who can hide you in the city, using resources and personnel not known to the Imperial government, close enough to the Palace but also far enough that you can either return to it or flee it on very short notice.”

“Exactly,” Panissar grunted. “Hence you. Despite your known tendency to play all ends against the middle.”

“I won’t waste anyone’s time denying that, but in a case like this…” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.I’d say this is no time for games. Far, far too much would come unraveled if something happened to the Emperor. Speaking of which, first things first: you gentlemen have probably already decided this and were maybe about to make a point of it to me, but under no circumstances can any Thieves’ Guild or other personnel be told who he is, much less why he’s hiding.”

“We are firmly in agreement,” Panissar snorted.

Darling nodded. “With that established… Yes, this shouldn’t actually be too hard. Any number of people either owe me favors or would love to do me one, and for Eserites, someone needing a no-questions place to crash where they’re encouraged to stay away from the windows isn’t an odd circumstance at all. I’ll have to winnow it down to people who can be both trusted and relied on. To do that, I’ll need to put my ear to the ground for a bit, find out who is or is not currently in a bad situation we don’t want to be near. Also not unusual for Eserites. What’s our timetable, here?”

“That will ultimately be determined by his Majesty’s agent,” said Vex. “The base situation will be resolved when she does so, one way or another. I will say, however, that having a bunch of physically overpowering, highly-ranked government officials slowly growing more and more unhinged will escalate this into either a massive crisis or a cluster of smaller ones, sooner than later. I give this no more than a week before it devolves into a disaster we will be hard-pressed to contain. Current problems aside, if the Emperor is out of sight for longer than that, political tensions will begin to form which could impair the government’s function on their own. Coupled with the Hands…”

“A week.” Darling rubbed his chin in thought. “This is gonna be a no-sleep night for me, then. Let me head back to the Guild and rule out some options; I want to be sure what we’re stepping into before we take the Emperor near it.”

“Is your Guild involved in a lot of things that physically dangerous in the city?” Panissar demanded.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Darling said with a shrug. “But a lot of what the Guild is involved in could be instantly escalated into a dangerous mess by putting the Emperor and Vex’s watchers anywhere near it. The underworld functions on a delicate balance, gentlemen; that’s what keeps it from affecting the lives of most citizens who don’t seek it out. If we’re going to do anything to affect that balance, we’ll do it carefully, especially given the stakes. This, I assume, is one of those spots the Hands know about?”

“Indeed,” Sharidan said, nodding. “And in theory should be safe; all of this is an added precaution, because we expect more than fear that some of them will act rashly, in spite of my orders. It should suffice for a while, though.”

“All right,” Darling replied. “A while is all I need. I’ll have something more permanent for you by morning.”


The entrance to the Wells was an unassuming sight, disguised as a small shed. Still, when the door opened, all three leaped to attention and saluted, Rook after twitching as if stung by a wasp.

Ravana stepped out, looking calm and composed as usual, if inquisitive, and swept a curious look across them. Behind her, two of her classmates followed, Scorn having to duck to get through the doorway and make room for Szith.

“Gentlemen,” Ravana said mildly. “Good evening. When Afritia said I had visitors, I confess I rather expected some of my classmates.”

“Your Grace!” Moriarty practically shouted. “We humbly thank you for taking the time to speak with us an apologize profusely for this imposition and the late hour!”

“At ease,” Ravana said with clear amusement. “All the way at ease, Private Moriarty. We’ve known each other only briefly, but it has been enough for me to be certain you would not trouble me were the matter not important.”

Behind her and to either side, the drow and demon mutely folded their arms in an eerily identical posture, framing the diminutive Duchess with the subtlest hint of menace.

Rook cleared his throat, dropping his salute. “Thanks, Duchess Madouri. And, uh, all due respect, but you can probably expect a little more bowing and scraping, ‘cos the plain truth is we came to ask a favor of you and you probably can’t even imagine how uncomfortable that is, oh gods I’m really sorry to bother you.”

She actually laughed softly. “Perhaps you’d better blurt it out before Moriarty suffers a cardiac event, then. Mr. Finchley, I have several times had the thought that your porridge is neither too hot nor too cold. Would you care to take over?”

Finchley froze, blinking. “P-porridge, your Grace?”

“An old Stalweiss fable,” she said ruefully. “My apologies, I do have something of a predilection for esoteric allusions.”

He cleared his throat. “Ah, yes, well, I’m sure it’s just one of your many charming—”

“What do you want?!” Scorn barked, making all three jump backward.

“Scorn, please,” Ravana said in the same tone of mild amusement. The demon just grunted. Szith raised one eyebrow.

Finchley took a deep breath, clearly steeling himself. “Your Grace, we would like to ask your help in acquiring legal counsel.”

“Interesting,” Ravana mused. “For what purpose?”

“Getting early discharge from the Army!” Rook blurted.

“Under circumstances which are, in the best possible interpretation, highly suspicious,” Moriarty added.

Ravana stood silently for a few seconds, taking the time to examine each of their faces in detail, before speaking. “I do say that is unexpected. Forgive me if I presume, gentlemen, but it has been my observation, in the course of our admittedly brief interactions, that all three of you find great pride and satisfaction in serving in his Majesty’s army, even if politics beyond your control have relegated you to an irrelevant backcountry nonsense post which negates any possibility of career advancement.”

“Oh, there were never any hard feelings about that,” Rook chuckled. “It’s not like any of us was gonna have career advancement anyhow. Moriarty’s the only one who even knows any regulations, and he literally cannot shoot the broad side of a barn. Funny story, we tested that.”

“After you got me drunk,” Moriarty snarled, “and let us not waste the Duchess’s time!”

“Here’s the thing, your Grace,” Finchley said. “There’s a Hand of the Emperor on campus, and the short version is, he’s gone crazy. Even Professor Tellwyrn is alarmed by how he’s been acting. But he’s a man with absolute authority. At the end of the week, if she hasn’t fixed this Sleeper problem to his satisfaction, he’s going to try to punish her by…disappearing us.”

“He used the actual words ‘never seen again,’” Rook added, gulping.

“Forgive me,” said Szith, “but…how would that punish Professor Tellwyrn?”

“It wouldn’t,” Moriarty replied, “in any way, shape, or form.”

“Finchley wasn’t kidding,” Rook added. “The man is completely off his nut.”

“So that’s our predicament,” said Finchley. “The ultimatum is probably impossible for Professor Tellwyrn to meet—she’s doing her best about it anyway, so what was even the point? And when it doesn’t happen, well… I mean, theoretically, he could just be reassigning us…”

“Our posting here is a political matter, though,” Moriarty said glumly. “We’re supposed to be out of the way. Us being stationed in the capital might have…um, repercussions.”

“Plus,” said Rook, “not to harp on this, but this guy is seriously unhinged. There is absolutely no telling what he’ll do with us. And legally? He can do any damn thing he wants.”

“How does a lawyer help you, then?” asked Szith.

“That is simple enough,” said Ravana. “The Empire is not an oligarchy, despite constant attempts by families such as mine to make it so. In a society of laws, the law can be used to challenge power on its own terms. In this case, by pressing suit over their treatment and securing early discharge on the grounds of abusive treatment by superiors, they create records, and attention. A threat like this would have to be carried out quietly; by making that impossible, they pull at least a few of its teeth. His only counter would be to declare this a matter of national security, which would bring the eyes of Imperial Intelligence onto his own misconduct. Seeking legal counsel of the kind I could connect you with is actually a very good idea, gentlemen, as it would take more than the common run of lawyer to pull this off. I am more concerned by your allegation that a Hand of the Emperor has become unstable. The implications are positively staggering.”

“Even I find it hard to believe,” Szith agreed. “The Hands are legendary. Their position and stability seems immutable.”

“A society is basically a collection of things we agree to believe,” Finchley said quietly. “It’s…a shape we give to what would otherwise be chaos. These things seem immutable until the moment they come crashing down, and we have to face the fact they only ever existed because everybody said so.”

Ravana cocked her head to the right, regarding him with a suddenly thoughtful expression. “Very insightful, Mr. Finchley.”

Finchley coughed awkwardly, flushing. “I, ah, well… My dad’s in the Wizard’s Guild. I grew up listening to wise old educated people chatting about life over tea.”

“I do believe my House attorneys could do what you wish,” she mused. “The first step would be to file injunctions protecting you from reprisal while you physically remove yourselves from the clutches of your superiors.”

“You can get permission to go AWOL?” Rook said in apparent delight.

Ravana gave him a vulpine smile. “With the right lawyer, Mr. Rook, one can do whatever one likes, and acquire permission retroactively. That isn’t even much of a trial, as it is within both the letter and the spirit of several laws aimed at protecting soldiers from exactly this sort of abuse. The real challenge would be contesting the orders of a Hand, which are the same as those of the Emperor, for all intents and purposes. That command cannot be gainsaid. It would have to be…interfered with, misdirected, undermined, sabotaged. Which, of course, is also within the purview of a truly good lawyer.” Her smile widened. “By which, of course, I mean a truly evil one.”

Finchley drew in a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Your Grace, I know this is a vast imposition, but we’re desperate. Could you…?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid it’s totally out of the question,” she replied, and continued when they all visibly deflated. “Not for lack of willingness to help on my part, gentlemen, but my House is still in hot water with the Silver Throne as it is. I have made progress during the last half year, but I am far from the point where I can afford to have my House attorney’s spit in a Hand of the Emperor’s eye.”

“I see,” Finchley said morosely. “Well. Again, your Grace, we’re sorry to have bothered you.”

“Now, just a moment.” Ravana held up a hand, again smiling very faintly. “I cannot afford to have my House attorneys step into this, which is exactly why I cultivate contact with highly effective, highly disreputable legal firms in both Tiraas and Madouris. One never knows when an inconvenience such as this will arise. I can put you in touch with the perfect person by telescroll. However,” she said quickly as all three perked up and Rook opened his mouth, “no one fitting that description can be simply approached from the street, as it were. Such a firm will require an introduction from an established client, and proof that their rather significant remuneration is assured.”

Rook blew out a sigh. “Welp, there’s that. Like the man said, m’lady, we’re sorry for bothering you.”

“You three have quite the penchant for getting ahead of yourselves,” Ravana said with amusement. “I’ll take care of everything. The telescroll office is closed, but I can have orders dispatched and funds procured by noon tomorrow. By dinner, we can have you on a caravan to the capital, out of this Hand’s immediate reach, and with the support of a powerful ally.”

“Your Grace, we cannot ask you to do that,” Moriarty said firmly.

“Man, we literally just asked her to do that,” Rook retorted, jabbing him with an elbow.

Moriarty stepped away from him, setting his jaw. “Asking for help from her personal lawyers is asking for a big favor—that’s bad enough. Asking her to pay for some lawyer in Tiraas… That’s asking for money. A lot of money. It’s out of the question!”

“We are, of course, deeply grateful for the offer, your Grace,” Finchley said, making a shushing motion at them. “I have to tell you, though, the three of us combined have basically no prospect of ever being able to pay you back.”

“I’m not in the habit of loaning money,” Ravana replied, “except after negotiating a suitable interest rate and securing collateral. You may consider this a gift, gentlemen. A favor for friends, if you will.”

“I…see,” Finchley said slowly. “I’m… Forgive me, I don’t wish to be rude, but I wouldn’t have thought you’d care about us all that—”

“Finchley!” Moriarty shouted, aghast. “Do not insult the Duchess!”

Ravana actually laughed. “Oh, not at all, Private Moriarty. I’d suggest a little more circumspection when speaking to nobles in the future, Mr. Finchley, but your point is well taken indeed. It is rare that powerful aristocrats pause their own business to grant expensive favors to passing acquaintances. When you see that, you should always look for the hidden agenda.”

“I, uh…oh.” Rook looked over at the others. “Um, can you guys think of anything safe to say to that? Because I got nothin’.”

“In this case, you may be assured it is nothing that will bode ill for you,” Ravana said, smiling. “Scorn, you are developing a decent mind for politics. Can you see the advantage for me in this?”

“I really, really can’t,” Scorn admitted, scowling. “These boys, I like them well enough, but they aren’t good for much.”

“And that’s our epitaph right there,” Rook said, grinning.

“This situation with the Hand,” Szith said softly, “cuts to the very heart of the Imperial government. Something of great import must be happening in Tiraas, something which will cause ripples of change. If you ignore it, it will wash over you, and perhaps push you under. If you pick a side, you run the risk of being wrong. But if you intervene subtly, you can deny involvement if ends badly, but take credit if it ends well.”

“Bravo, Szith,” Ravana said approvingly. “You have good political instincts, yourself.”

“In Tar’naris, one needs those to survive,” the drow replied, face as impassive as always. “The mighty are often not careful where they place their feet. One must be adroit to avoid being stepped on.”

“Yes,” Ravana agreed, turning her sly little smile on the three baffled-looking soldiers, “indeed one must.”

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