Tag Archives: Quentin Vex

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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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12 – 6

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“This is what you’ve been doing the whole winter break?” Iris asked in awe, slowly pacing around the construct. “This is amazing! I mean, it’s huge, Maureen! Well, maybe not huge, but considering you put it together all by yourself in a week…”

“Mayhap I oughtta stop ye there,” Maureen said, grinning and straightening up from the bolts she had been tightening. “Aye, she’s a substantial chunk o’ hardware, all right, but pretty much just so much metal at the moment. An’ she ain’t just my project. Me an’ Teal ‘ave been at this. Well, me, Teal, an’ ‘er other half.”

“Shaeine helped you with this?” Szith asked, raising an eyebrow.

Maureen cleared her throat. “Oh, uh… That’s not what I meant by… Um, her other other half. Vadrieny. Plus, Scorn likes to ‘ang around with ‘er, so, y’know, between an archdemon an’ a towerin’ great Rhaazke, I didn’t exactly lack fer muscle t’lift the ‘eavy parts.”

“Oh.” Iris’s expression shifted to a rueful grin. “Well, that makes a great deal more sense, then.”

“Quite,” Ravana said brightly. “It would appear to be right up Teal’s proverbial alley, in any case. Am I correct in guessing this is some type of vehicle, Maureen?”

She paused to sip her cordial while raising her eyebrows expectantly. She had had them brought in by the case from Calderaas starting at the end of last semester, after discovering that while the fruity bottled drinks did (barely) contain alcohol, it wasn’t enough to trigger whatever effect Tellwyrn had laid on the campus that rendered it undrinkable. Thus, Ravana had seldom been without a bottle in the last week, despite the fact that she claimed they tasted like mouthwash and the carbonation was purely irritating. According to her, it was a matter of principle. As always, she was generous with her bounty, though most of her roommates were sufficiently put off by her descriptions of the cordials to decline, with the exception of Szith, who actually liked them.

The shed Maureen and Teal had appropriated for their project was theoretically designated as storage for the Well, their dorm, but Afritia had told Maureen to make herself at home. The dorm had only this year been re-opened and had nothing stored, so for the time being at least, it was available and at least this way, someone got some use out of it. The space was not much larger than a somewhat generous stable stall, and had been quite dim and dingy before Maureen had strung up a few fairy lamps, then keyed them all to a single runic switch so that one touch could turn on the lights—a standard arrangement, but Iris had nonetheless been impressed that the gnome had done the enchanting herself.

Taking up the bulk of the space was Maureen’s project, which at the moment mostly resembled a large, confused wheelbarrow: the smoothly rounded copper shell bristled with pipes and wires where various gadgets were to be attached, its rounded side up, and the wheel affixed to its flatter underside. The wheel itself was hugely broad, coated in a springy black material and carved in odd patterns. Extending from the rear of the copper shell was a tail-like structure, currently propped up on two sawhorses, and Maureen was in the process of bolting an enchanted apparatus to its underside.

“What’s all this?” Iris asked, bending to gently run her fingers along the wheel. “It feels…odd.”

“Aye, that’s synthetic rubber,” Maureen explained.

Ravana straightened, frowning. “Rubber? I’ve never seen it that color. And there appears to be quite a lot.”

“Well, sure, it’s alchemical, yeah? We don’t actually ‘ave rubber trees on this continent, as I reckon you know, an’ anyhow the real stuff’s a mite soft for our purposes.” Stepping back from the other end of her invention, she trundled around to join Iris by the wheel. “This ‘ere’s the newest thing outta Falconer Industries! See, y’know how carriages require big enchantments on the wheels to make ’em run smooth an’ hold to the road?”

“Uh, sure,” Iris said, shrugging. “If you say so.”

“Aye, well, that’s cos at the speed they move they tend t’bounce. Carriages still owe a lot o’ their design to the old kind that was pulled by horses. Teal’s parents are workin’ on this: they’re called tires! Rubber coatings on the wheels, see? They’re softer, which absorbs impacts, an’ textured to give ’em traction. That way they can take some o’ the power outta the traction an’ smoothing charms, which leaves more power for the motive charms on the wheels, thus faster carriages.”

“Ingenious,” Ravana marveled, studying Maureen’s device with new interest.

“Aye, it’s all pretty experimental. Teal says they’re findin’ it works better to make a kinda thin shell of the rubber an’ inflate ’em with pressurized air.”

“Inflated wheels?” Szith said incredulously. “That sounds like a disastrous idea.”

“Many innovations do, at first,” said Ravana. “The Falconers know what they are about.”

“According to Teal,” Maureen continued excitedly, “they’re lookin’ at buffin’ ’em up from inside, usin’ springs an’ possibly a kind of gel they can make from petroleum instead of air. More stable that way, an’ less fragile.”

Iris frowned. “What’s petroleum?”

“A kind of mineral oil,” Ravana explained. “It has some industrial and alchemical applications, but it’s not as useful as organic oils for most things. Also, it’s found in deposits underground, like ore, which makes it hugely difficult to extract. If F.I. can make something worthwhile out of it, more power to them. Is the wheel that wide for balance, Maureen?”

“Aye, it ‘elps with that,” Maureen said, grinning. “But the wheel’s that wide because this is the leftover piece from an F.I. experiment that Teal could get fer me, so the rest o’ the thing’s designed around it. Beggars, choosers, an’ all that. All right, ladies, moment o’ truth!”

“I mean the greatest of respect, please do not think otherwise,” Szith said carefully as Maureen stepped back to the other end of the vehicle, “but…how much danger are we in, here?”

“Uh…” The gnome paused in double-checking the runes on the gadget, straightening to frown at her project. “None at all, I shouldn’t think. Provided ye stay on this side. Just physics bein’ what it is, if there’s any trouble it’ll be up front.”

“Righto!” Iris said quickly, scurrying around behind Maureen.

“And now,” the gnome said, pausing to rub her hands together and grinning in delight. “Moment o’ truth, fer real!”

She pressed a rune.

Immediately, the crystal plate she had attached to the underside of the vehicle blazed to life, putting off a brilliant torrent of azure light and a powerful hum of magic at work.

It also shot toward the ceiling, taking the back end of the vehicle with it. The whole thing flipped forward on its wheel, its newly-enchanted tail slamming against the wall above the front door hard enough to shake the whole shed. Still putting out levitative force and with nowhere else to go, the upside-down vehicle began creeping toward them on its sole wheel, which remained firmly affixed to the ground.

Iris shrieked and mashed herself against the back wall; Ravana leaped up adroitly to make her own retreat, Szith stepping between her and the runaway invention.

Maureen, though, yelped and scurried forward, heedless of the erratic motion of her large, metal creation, and threw herself bodily atop it. After a moment’s frantic scrabbling, she found the rune again.

In the next instant, it went dark and silent.

“Okay,” Iris said tremulously from the back. “Needs a little work.”

“Needs a lot o’ work,” Maureen grumbled, scowling at her invention as if feeling betrayed. “That’s a lot more force than it’s s’pposed to put out… Where’d I go wrong? I was sure o’ me figures…” She shook her head, then suddenly looked up. “Oh! Everybody all right?”

“Quite,” Ravana said with a smile, “though perhaps someone should go let Afritia know that no one is being murdered up here.”

“I doubt she could even hear that, from down in the Well,” said Szith.

“I’ll go,” Iris offered, edging around Maureen’s vehicle toward the door. “She may not have heard it, but I bet Addiwyn could. The last thing we need is her stirring up trouble.”

“I think Addiwyn has been making great progress,” Ravana said placidly. “You’ll note the complete lack of vicious pranks since we stuffed her in an entling, and a general lessening of her attitude starting around that time. Whatever issues she was grappling with, she appears to be developing some maturity. Really, Iris, I believe we could make progress with her if everyone would refrain from picking at her.”

“Everyone meaning me?” Iris said sardonically. “I don’t even disagree, Ravana, but some people I just don’t care to get to know. She buttered her bed good and proper.”

“As you like,” Ravana said equably. “Just for the sake of peace in the dorm, then, I merely ask that you not be provocative.”

“I guess I can do that much,” Iris muttered, carefully opening the door and squeezing out through the gap; it was still partially blocked by Maureen’s invention.

No sooner had she stepped outside than she shrieked again and tumbled to the ground.

“Iris!” Szith smoothly strode to the door. “Are you—”

Leaning her head out, she broke off. Iris was gathering herself up, and now both of them stared at what she had tripped over.

Their fifth roommate lay sprawled outside the shed, her legs stretched across the doorway.

“You addle-pated blonde bundle of sticks!” Iris shouted. “What the hell do you think you’re doing out here?”

“Shall I assume that wasn’t directed at me?” Ravana asked, her face appearing in the gap. Szith had already slipped smoothly out and knelt beside Addiwyn.

“Iris,” the drow said flatly, “she’s asleep.”

Iris broke off in the process of drawing breath for more invective, her expression suddenly horrified. “I—what? No, it’s not like—she’s just being a pain, like always. Oy, cut it out!” Scrambling to her feet, she prodded Addiwyn’s hip with her foot, none too gently.

Szith, with more care, rolled the elf onto her back. She looked rather peaceful, if anything, her eyes closed and expression quite relaxed.

“Breath and heartbeat even,” Szith reported. “Slow, as if in natural sleep.” She lightly slapped Addiwyn’s cheek, to no avail.

“Ohhh, no,” Maureen whispered, poking her head through the door below Ravana’s.

“No, this is crazy,” Iris said nervously. “This is just one of her jokes. Come on, first Chase and now her?”

“And Natchua,” Szith said quietly.

“Exactly! You notice it’s only the jerks and assholes? She’s faking. Get up!”

Ravana cleared her throat loudly as Iris drew back her foot for what looked like a more earnest kick. “Rather than do that, Iris, I suggest someone fetch Miss Sunrunner. If this is Addiwyn’s idea of a prank, on her head be it, then. If not, you’ll feel terrible later if you start kicking her.”

“I’ll go,” Maureen volunteered, wriggling out around her. She took off down the path, quickly vanishing around the corner. Despite her short legs, she could move with amazing speed when motivated.

“I will get Afritia,” Szith said, standing up and turning toward the door of the Well, which was a few yards away around a hedge. “She should be informed of this immediately, also.”

“Good idea,” Ravana said approvingly. Szith gave her a nod and strode off.

“Why,” Iris asked weakly, staring down at the sleeping Addiwyn, “is it always us?”

“Based on the stories I hear,” Ravana said with more equanimity, “I wonder if perhaps it is not just the freshman class each year. And honestly, if half the things I’ve been told are true, we shall have to do a lot better than this if we hope to compete.”


The atrium of the building in which she waited had a lovely modern style of architecture, with an entire wall which arched inward two stories up to become a skylight which would have admitted the reddish glow of late afternoon, had there been any. Tiraas lay under a fresh glaze of ice, the heaps of snow having been mostly cleared away, and its sky was a typical gloomy gray. Still, at least the room was pretty.

Tellwyrn paced slowly up and down the atrium, peering now and then out the windows, studying the furnishings, and glancing occasionally at the government functionaries stationed at desks along the rear wall, all of whom were stealing glances at her whenever possible, only to lower their eyes to their paperwork when she happened to meet their gaze.

This place was fairly opulent, though it wasn’t part of the Imperial Palace itself. Several entire blocks behind the Palace were given over to the offices from which the Empire was administered, and the Empire required vast amounts of administration. All of these were designed to be beautiful when observed from without, though many were drab and purely functional on the inside, as befit a good bureaucracy. Quite a few interior spaces, though, were meant to receive important persons who felt they deserved to be entertained in style.

It amused her slightly that she made the list.

Tellwyrn glanced up again, finding a reedy young man peering at her from the corner of his eye. At her gaze, he instantly ducked his head, scribbling so furiously on the paper in front of him that he couldn’t possibly have been producing anything but meaningless scrawl.

She stood still, suddenly, just staring at him.

He held out well for such an apparent milquetoast. It was more than two full minutes before he finally glanced up at her again.

The sharp pop of her passage was almost inaudible amid all the pen-scratching. One moment she stood by the door, the next she was inches from him.

“BOO!”

He actually screamed and fell out of his chair.

“Don’t try that yourselves,” she advised the room full of shocked clerks, backing away and grinning. “You have to be very old before you can get away with being juvenile.”

They were spared more of her boredom by the opening of the door through which her escort had vanished half an hour ago.

“Thank you for your patience, Professor,” the Hand of the Emperor said in his customary clipped tone, striding toward her. This time, Lord Quentin Vex was with him, regarding her with an expression of mingled boredom and idle curiosity. Her face-to-face interactions with Vex had been fairly limited, all things considered, but she knew very well not to be fooled by his sleepy demeanor.

“Not at all, I’m quite confident you know better than to waste my time deliberately. Considering the bureaucratic levers you were apparently back there pulling, I’m impressed this has all gone so quickly. Joining us, then, Quentin?”

“The personnel being requisitioned for this project do answer directly to me,” Vex said, nodding to her. “Always a pleasure, Professor.”

“So formal,” Tellwyrn chided, “after all we’ve meant to each other. I thought you outranked basically everyone,” she added to the Hand. “You need his permission to bring talent on board?”

“This may be a challenging concept for you, Professor, but because one has the power to do something does not mean one ought to. Lord Vex’s work has always been imminently satisfactory, and his Majesty prefers not to needlessly disrupt the functions of his agencies. If you would come this way, please, we shall meet the individual you’ve come to see in a more secure location within.”

She followed wordlessly at his gesture, and the two men led her back into the hall. The décor remained simple but expensive, with glossy wood paneling and a thick carpet, but the only decorations as such were simple Tiraan banners hung along the walls at intervals like tapestries. They turned left twice and then right, passing doors which her guides ignored, and a few yards later the hall terminated against a set of vertical brass bars.

The Hand grasped a handle on these and pushed the whole thing aside into the wall, gesturing her forward into what appeared to be a small room lined with velvet-padded benches and no doors save the one covered by the bars.

“Rest assured, we are not putting you in a cell,” he said with a thin smile. “This is called an elevator. It will—”

“I dearly hope you don’t think you invented elevators,” she snorted, striding past him and taking a seat. “They’ve been used in the dwarven kingdoms for decades.”

“Yes, but this one runs on magic,” Vex said mildly, lounging against the wall a few feet away while the Hand pulled the bars shut behind them and touched runes on a control panel nearby. “No cables, pulleys, gears or anything else which is likely to up and break.”

“Spells break just as easily as anything,” she replied. “One just has to know how.”

“It’s so good to find you in such a cheerful mood,” he said. Tellwyrn grinned at him.

They descended for nearly ten minutes. None of them spoke. If any found the silence awkward, they made no sign.

When the elevator finally came to a stop, Tellwyrn surged impatiently to her feet, barely giving the Hand a chance to pry the bars open again before pushing past him into the space revealed. There, she planted her hands on her hips and looked around.

This had to have been deep underground, but rather than the customary fairy lamps, the rotunda was lined with tall panels of glass which glowed a pale white, approximating windows. They even had curtains to heighten the illusion. The floor was glossy marble, the walls gilt-trimmed, the domed ceiling a mural depicting important scenes from Tiraan history. Two curved staircases swept up to a balcony ringing the second floor, from which doorways led into dark halls.

Dominating the center of the room was an obelisk of gleaming white metal, etched with geometric patterns which glowed a subtle green. On two sides, small arms extended from it, holding up transparent panels in which maps were projected, one of the city, one of the continent. Directly above and centered on the obelisk’s tip was a translucent globe of light depicting the planet, its continents and countries clearly labeled in glowing text, the whole thing so massive it nearly filled the space, rotating slowly. The moon, unattached and similarly translucent, swung around it on its elliptical orbit, almost grazing the balcony in places.

“A very useful gadget,” Vex said idly, giving the globe a disinterested look. “Lets us keep track of our agents. You may have seen similar things here and there.”

“Artifacts of the Elder Gods should be left buried,” she said disapprovingly. “A good number of them thought weaving deadly booby traps into mundane objects was the height of comedy. Those things have been known to go off after centuries, prompted by nothing.”

“Your advice is appreciated,” the Hand said curtly. “What you see here is, in a sense, the direct descendant of the old Ministry of Mysteries.”

“His Majesty wouldn’t let me revive the name,” Vex said with a languid smile. “Shame. I really wanted to make my people carry badges that said MOM.”

The Hand gave him a sour glance, but continued. “The original Ministry’s mandate was to respond to and potentially make use of unexplained phenomena, which is an inherently foolish and romantic notion. The Imperial government’s current policy is that anything unexplained has been insufficiently investigated, and we will not indulge in mysticism. Nonetheless, there are assets we may choose to leverage which are difficult to fit into the normal order of government or society. Those of them who answer to Imperial Intelligence do so via this division.”

“What, exactly, did you bring me here to see?” Tellwyrn asked, slowly studying the room.

“A specialist,” said the Hand. “Someone gifted, trained, and experienced in complex criminal investigation; in fact, the very author of the Empire’s ongoing reforms in police work. For a long time, catching criminals has been an extremely slapdash affair. Our man here has developed methods of gathering and analyzing evidence which have both exonerated many falsely accused subjects and led to the capture of countless guilty parties who might otherwise have escaped justice. I contacted Lord Vex from Last Rock and ordered that he be briefed.” He turned to raise an eyebrow at the spymaster. “I thought you said he was coming?”

“I told him to come,” Vex replied. “And then, since I knew he’d be late, I sent Ashley to fetch him. Should be along any moment—ah.”

“Ah, indeed!” said the new arrival, bounding out of a second-floor hallway and landing with his rump on the marble banister of one of the staircases. He slid all the way down, his trench coat fluttering in passing, and hit the bottom in an elaborate bow. “So this is the great and terrible Professor Tellwyrn! I had honestly hoped never to be in a room with you, but clearly nobody cares what I want.”

He was a rather diminutive man, not even as tall as she, and correspondingly slim. Though quite handsome, he was also markedly scruffy, in need of a shave and haircut, and wearing a slightly shabby coat and hat even indoors.

Tellwyrn gave him a long, baleful look, then pushed her spectacles up her nose to stare through the lenses, then turned to the other two men.

“Are you aware—”

“Of course we are,” the Hand said irritably. “This is why I began by explaining the mandate of this agency. Inspector Fedora is the best detective in the Tiraan Empire, and possibly beyond it, and has been briefed on your problem to the extent that he can be.”

“Murgatroyd to my friends,” the Inspector said, giving her a smile which did not disguise the hostility in his eyes. “Which doesn’t and won’t include you, but I understand you enjoy being presumptuous.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Murgatroyd Fedora? You were going for maximum possible absurdity, then?”

“Well, I think if one’s going to choose a name, it ought to be pleasing to its owner,” he replied, grinning impudently. “Of course, some people prefer names that are laden with heavy-handed meaning. But then, look who I’m telling, Miss Spider-Priestess Yells-At-Dragons.”

“That’s Professor,” she said flatly.

Vex cleared his throat. “Did you manage to lose Ashley again?”

“Nah,” said a voice from above. “He just wanted to make an entrance. Don’t worry, I’m not about to leave him unattended in company.”

A young woman was leaning over the balcony above, giving them a sunny smile. She had a pixiesh face, with brown hair cut boyishly short, and seemed to be dressed in a man’s suit, or at least had on a jacket and tie.

Tellwyrn craned her head back to stare at the latest arrival through her glasses for a moment, then turned again to Vex and the Hand.

“Do you realize—”

“Yes,” they chorused.

“Inspector,” the Hand continued, “kindly tell us what you have so far.”

“What I have so far is virtually nothing,” Fedora stated, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his coat and slouching. “All I’ve been able to do is consider the overview of the situation and pull a few files on known personalities at the University. That’s nothing. If you want any actual, useful answers, I will need to be on site and given a significant amount of access. And anyway, while this case does look like it could shape up to be something fascinating, I rather think there’s just not enough yet to begin closing in on a perpetrator, even if I could see firsthand whatever little there is.”

“This,” Tellwyrn stated, pointing at the Inspector and addressing herself to the Hand, “will not be visiting my campus.”

“Well, then, I’m just a pretty face here,” Fedora said, shrugging. “If she won’t let me do my work, that’s that.”

“Troy,” Ashley said reprovingly from above, “be nice.”

“Everyone, please,” Vex said soothingly. “Professor, I realize this is a troubling suggestion and we’re asking a lot, but for the record, you came to the Empire for help; the Empire doesn’t have a direct stake in your problem. We are doing a favor—with the expectation of favors in return, let us not dissemble, but still. I think it would be appropriate for us all to extend some tolerance toward each other.”

She snorted and folded her arms. “Fine, then. Impress me, detective.”

“Can’t do it, probably,” Fedora said glibly. “But what I’ve got so far is a short list of suspects. Now, let me begin with the disclaimer that to call criminal profiling an inexact science is giving it way too much credit, but just on an overview, my instinct is to approach this as a serial attacker. Two victims thus far isn’t a pattern, but striking people down at apparent random fits that profile. Much will depend on what develops—how many more victims appear, how frequently, how they are connected.”

“I’m sure you have something,” said Vex.

“I’ve got a few names who have files that are suggestive,” the Inspector replied, turning his sharp gaze back to Tellwyrn. “First, of course, your first victim, Chase Masterson. He left an impressively consistent record of incidents at the Shaathist lodge which had the misfortune to have raised him. No close friendships, charming demeanor, a general pattern of rulebreaking and manipulative behavior to get his way. Textbook social pathology. Literally, I’ve got a fantastic book from the Svenheim Polytheoric Institute on this, which I just flipped through for reference.”

“Aside from being the first victim,” Tellwyrn said, narrowing her eyes, “Chase was unconscious when the second was attacked.”

“And that may or may not be significant,” Fedora replied, shrugging. “We know nothing about how these attacks are carried out, yes? It’s clearly magical, which opens up a whole world of possibilities. However, that is significant, and it’s for that reason that I don’t particularly like Masterson for the crime. I list him just on the strength of his nature—a boy like that doesn’t need a motive, he just does things, and that’s what argues against him doing this. Striking down himself and then arranging the next victim to happen while he was out would be, if he did it, a mastermind’s ploy. The action of someone who thinks multiple steps ahead. That isn’t Masterson’s pattern; he’s a dog chasing carriages. Anth’auwa aren’t all cut from the same cloth, and the profile he left behind at the lodge was of the ‘harmless pain in the ass’ variety. Unless you’ve seen something in his two and a half years under your tutelage which contradicts that?”

“No,” she said slowly, “no, I tend to agree. Chase is not a planner. He’s impulsive and lacks both restraint and remorse, but he just doesn’t care enough about the future to think ahead.”

Fedora nodded. “I’ve got two others I consider more likely. Lord Jerome Conover has been disinherited thanks to his antics while on your campus and even by the standards of young noblemen he’s established enough of a pattern as a grudge-holder that Intelligence had a file on him before he set off for your University. I consider it extremely noteworthy that his primary contention was with Trissiny Avelea, who is far too powerful for him to threaten, and whose sudden absence from your campus immediately preceded the start of these attacks.”

“Hum.” Tellwyrn frowned deeply, but offered no further comment.

“My personal favorite,” Fedora continued with a grim smile, “isn’t a student. What you’ve got happening at your school, Professor, is exactly the established mode of attack of Morvana the Poisoner.”

“Afritia has my complete trust,” Tellwyrn snapped.

He shrugged again. “Well, clearly, someone who has your trust has betrayed it. That does nothing at all to narrow down our suspects, now does it?”

“Troy,” Ashley said, coming down the stairs behind him, “ease up. There’s no need to make this any worse for her than it is.”

“I will say,” he acknowledged, “that this clashes with her established motive. The Poisoner went after much higher-profile targets, most Wreath-affiliated. Unless you’ve got some truly skeevy shit going on at your school, this isn’t that. However, if this curse proves to be transmitted through an alchemical vector, I’d have to call her suspect number one.”

“And that’s all you have,” Tellwyrn said scathingly.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms wide in a melodramatic shrug. “That is all I have! This looks like it might be an interesting puzzle and I’d love to have a crack at it, but let’s be honest: standing here, with nothing to go on but your descriptions and Imperial records? I’m as useless as a beat cop in Ninkabi.” He turned to give Vex an expressive stare. “So what’s it gonna be? Am I on the case, or are we all wasting each other’s time, here?”

Vex looked at the Hand, who cleared his throat and nodded to Tellwyrn.

“You’re right to have reservations, Professor. But…this could be a start.”

She was staring at Fedora, who grinned right back. Finally, she heaved a short sigh and let it out through her nose.

“I guess…we shall see.”

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12 – 2

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“Why am I just now hearing about this?” General Panissar demanded.

“I would surmise,” Lord Vex replied, “for the same reason I didn’t learn about the existence of these disruptors until the Army lost them. We cannot all keep one another informed of every little thing our respective departments do. Experimental weapons are the Army’s affair; knockoffs of the Army’s experimental weapons popping up on the black market is the province of Intelligence. And as I said, General, this was two days ago. We had this meeting scheduled anyway. I have hardly been keeping it from you.”

Panissar subsided with a grunt, looking not particularly mollified.

“Both the letter and spirit of interdepartmental protocol has been observed,” said the Hand of the Emperor, planting his elbows on the table and steepling his fingers before his mouth. “Let us not waste time in recrimination. What is our course of action now?”

“I’ve been attempting to trace the path these weapons took,” said Vex, turning to face him. “Sergeant Locke refused to hand them over, and referred me to the High Commander. I did not think it best to press the issue at that time; my primary muscle on the scene was her cousin, and I’m sure you gentlemen recall how it went the last time I had both of them in a room.”

“Can she do that?” Panissar asked, frowning. “Legally?”

“Her defense,” said Vex, “was that the weapons on site were made by herself and property of the Sisterhood, which appears to have been the truth. So…yes. The Empire’s prerogative to seize property does not extend to the Sisters of Avei except in extraordinary circumstances.”

“Sounds like those were,” Bishop Darling noted.

“Indeed,” Vex agreed sourly, “but not in the right way. In any case, when I questioned Rouvad about this, she likewise declined to cooperate except to the extent of saying the weapons were seized by her troops in a raid on an illegal arms meet, where they were in the process of being sold to the dwarves in question by the Thieves’ Guild, or at least, by representatives thereof. I have asked the Bishop to follow up on that. Has there been any word?”

“It was quick and easy enough to get,” said Darling. “Boss Tricks declined to reveal exactly where the things came from, but he did acknowledge the affair in question was a setup, his ploy to put the weapons into the hands of the Sisterhood and bring those dwarves to their attention at the same time. By your description, Quentin, it sounds like half of it worked.”

“The originals were Imperial property, and clearly of a sensitive nature,” said the Hand, his eyes hard. Harder than usual, even. “Withholding information of that kind is potentially treasonous.”

“I know the law, thank you,” Darling said equably. “I mentioned this to the Boss, just to cover all the salient points, which yielded nothing. Well, there was a bit about Quentin’s father and some goats, but I didn’t consider it germane to the situation. Given time, I may be able to get more information using my personal connections, but I am frankly reluctant to do so. Considering the subject matter and my known affiliations, it’ll be a dead giveaway that I’m rooting around for dirt on Guild members to give the government. That’s the kind of thing that can damage my laboriously-built reputation and web of contacts. Unless this is crashingly urgent…”

“I really can’t see that it is,” Vex said when Darling trailed off and gave him a questioning look. “It’s far too late for containment to be a possibility, and that’s the only thing that could still have made it worth clamping down on.”

“We have all but two of the originals back,” added Panissar, scowling. “Weapons we can seize; what’s going around now is the knowledge of how to build them, and that’s another thing entirely.”

Vex nodded. “Narrowing it down to just the parties we know, those things passed through the hands of that now-extinct chaos cult, the Black Wreath, Tellwyrn’s sophomore class, Duchess Dufresne, the Thieves’ Guild and the Sisterhood of Avei, with Svenheim’s Exploratory Office being made aware of and very interested in them in the process. Far too many of those are completely inscrutable to us, for various reasons. I have directed polite and careful inquiries to both the Duchess and the Professor, but I doubt either will yield results. No, the cat is well and truly out of the bag.”

“Then,” said the Hand, “I believe that attempting to pressure the Guild or the Sisterhood is counterproductive. At this point, it may better serve our interests to mollify them. The Avenists, at least, might have taken it amiss that the Army is developing weapons that might as well have been specifically targeted at them.”

He shot a long look at Panissar, who sighed.

“In point of fact, those were only the first stage in a much longer research project,” said the General. “Neutralizing divine energy is just about the least useful Circle of Interaction trick we could play, but it’s the one my enchanters cracked first. The plan was to crate those and use the insights gained from their creation to move on to more strategic types of disruptors. We would love nothing more than a way to shut down infernal magic with the squeeze of a trigger.”

“How is that proceeding?” the Hand inquired.

Panissar shrugged irritably. “Obviously, the whole project was brought to a near halt by the nonsense in Veilgrad. Virtually all the records were destroyed in the attack on the research facility. The Army enchanters have been working on reconstructing the project since then; we’re not yet back on track. The whole business was far too complex for them to have it all in their heads. At least we didn’t lose anybody, and they still have the prototypes to reverse-enchant. Among other people,” he added bitterly.

“Your thoughts on that, your Grace?” asked the Hand.

“Anti-infernal weapons would be a godsend, if you’ll excuse the pun,” said Darling. “With regard to the Sisterhood, I am of course not an insider but in my interactions with Commander Rouvad, I have had the impression she is too pragmatic to bear a grudge.”

“She took clear satisfaction in obstructing me,” Vex noted, “but considering the circumstances…”

“I can raise the issue with his Holiness, if you’d like?” Darling offered.

“Best not,” said the Hand with a sigh. “If the High Commander has issue with the Throne, she won’t go through the Church anyway. We’ll address that directly. On matters about which you doubtless are in the know, can we expect further action from the Guild?”

“I think the Guild has made its point,” Darling said with a thoughtful frown. “Developing sketchy weapons in secret isn’t so awful; considering the state of the world, nothing about it looks especially tyrannical. They’ll definitely react if leaned on further, but for now, I don’t believe the Guild is a further consideration in the matter.”

“Good,” said the Hand briskly. “That leaves us with the rather thornier issue of these dwarves.”

“Several things about that concern me,” said Vex. “For starters, the lead operative was able to mobilize dwarven civilians who clearly had no training and just as clearly did not want to be there. I’m still investigating those we identified, but I rather suspect they had no direct tie to their government beyond the taxes they pay. This is without precedent, which suggests it is more than just cultural. We should look into conscription laws passed in Svenheim in recent history.”

“Good,” said the Hand, nodding. “We shall direct the Foreign Service to do so, but it won’t hurt for you to add your own efforts, Lord Vex.”

“I already am,” Vex said with his characteristic sleepy smile. “There is also the matter of their extremely determined interest in acquiring Imperial experimental weapons. By itself, that would be merely troubling, but there has been a pattern of interest in weapons in general from the Five Kingdoms, and especially Svenheim, over the last five years. They have allocated more research funds than their economic state would suggest is wise to these pursuits. Particularly in the realm of explosives.”

“A suspicious person could draw the conclusion they were planning something,” said Panissar.

“Preparing seems more likely,” said Darling. “The dwarves have to know there’s no possible victory for them if they were to attack the Empire, and by this point we all know their declared war on Tar’naris is an empty gesture of pique. But when you live next to a huge, monolithic political entity that can accidentally collapse your economy and not show much concern over it, a certain amount of defensive thinking is just basic preparedness.”

“That makes sense to me, in fact,” Panissar agreed. “A key strategic factor here is the dwarven ability to call on divine light without a deity’s support. For thousands of years, that gave their armies and unquestionable defensive advantage. Our modern shielding charms pretty suddenly negated that advantage, and these devices have the potential to completely reverse it. They can hardly be blamed for feeling threatened.”

“That complicates matters,” Vex mused. “I have any number of ways to educate King Gjarten on the inadvisability of letting his spies run amok in Tiraas, but any such measure takes on an entirely different tone if he already suspects hostile intention from us. And yet, we cannot allow aggression of this kind to go unanswered.”

“The ongoing trade negotiations do not exist in a vacuum,” said the Hand. “While the virtually free mineral wealth we receive from Tar’naris is a boon, it has also made the Tiraan economy terribly dependent upon the Narisians, and we still don’t know if their increasing activity among the groves is pointed toward something or just general peacemaking. His Majesty has directed resources toward our native mining industries, which have been in severe decline since the treaty, and trying to reinvigorate trade with the Five Kingdoms is another measure. It is wiser, in general, to be on good terms with one’s neighbors, anyway. The more so if the Kingdoms suspect us of having designs upon them.”

“We are on good enough terms with Rodvenheim that I can be fairly certain they harbor no such fears,” said Vex. “We have all possible assurances short of an actual promise from Queen Jadhra that Rodvenheim’s support of the war on Tar’naris was nothing but a means to mollify her neighbors.”

“Which is the same as no assurance,” Panissar grunted. “Politicians will say anything, and Jadhra is cleverer than most. That brings up a thorny matter that has to have been a factor, here: our treaty with Tar’naris heavily emphasizes mutual defense, hence our military presence on their Scyllithene frontier and them sending a detachment to that recent mess on the Athan’Khar border. Technically, the standing state of war by the Kingdoms should require us to declare war in kind. Bless Queen Arkasia for seeing the whole picture and joining everyone else in politely ignoring this, but this is the situation, here. All it would take is one instance of the dwarves actually assaulting the drow, or the Narisians deciding to insist upon that clause in the treaty… The situation is already too volatile for Svenheim to take risks like these unless they already regard conflict as inevitable.”

“Hmm,” the Hand murmured, transferring his piercing gaze to Panissar. “How, roughly, do you think such a conflict would proceed, General?”

“Immediate stalemate,” Panissar replied without hesitation. “Our forces would crush anything they can field, but our military superiority does not negate the fact that pressing dwarves in their own caverns is a fantastically bad idea.”

“Didn’t the orcs invade them once?” asked Darling.

“Three times,” the General replied. “Only one was ever a threat to them, because of a plague in Stavulheim that left most of the population too weak to mobilize, and in that case two Hands of Avei held the gates until Svennish reinforcements could arrive. The other two, Svenheim actually let them get inside. Deliberately. Not one orc made it back out either time, and the second was the last time they ever tried to raid farther north than Viridill.”

“It seems clear that war doesn’t serve anyone, then,” Darling said, shrugging.

“War often doesn’t,” Panissar agreed. “Wars are declared for countless reasons, very few because they were in any way necessary. What concerns me is all this weapons development you’re talking about, Vex. Weapons, once built, very rarely go unused. You’re all familiar with the run-up to the Enchanter Wars.”

“The dwarves are working with explosives, yes,” said Vex, “but they seem to be specifically favoring non-magical weapons. They are hardly cooking up another Enchanter’s Bane.”

“The principle remains,” Panissar shot back. “You don’t build a weapon unless you’re planning to use it on somebody.”

The Hand of the Emperor cleared his throat, regaining their attention. “The commentary is useful, but please keep it focused. We, here, have no power to set policy, but these discussions make a significant impact on what ideas we bring to the Emperor. And pertaining to that…what ideas have we?”

“We appear to be between the rock and the hard place, diplomatically,” said Vex. “Some reprisal for Svenheim’s extremely aggressive behavior seems necessary, but given their already-raised hackles, any such could be a further provocation.”

“A couple of points on that, and correct me if I’m mistaken about anything here,” said Darling, holding up a finger. “The dwarves, I was told, were very careful to maintain deniability for their government, yes?”

“To the greatest extent that such can be done,” Vex replied, nodding. “No immediate traces to the King are apparent, but I can doubtless turn them up with some digging. I’m working on that, as I said, but just for the sake of thoroughness. It seems rather academic at this point.”

“Just so,” said Darling, nodding back. “And additionally, I’m not sure how necessary it is to retaliate against Svenheim, when we know and they know who the power on this continent is. Were there some disagreement, there, letting them do this could be taken as weakness. If anything, don’t we reaffirm our position by gently chiding the dwarves and refraining from coming down on them about this?”

“Is that how you Eserites enforcers keep order among the riffraff?” Panissar asked skeptically.

“Well, I was never an enforcer,” Darling said modestly, spreading his hands in a half-shrug, “but the principles scale up, don’t they?”

“In fact, there’s some validity to that,” Vex mused. “I don’t think this should be ignored, but there are many ways of quietly making a point that don’t involve threats of force.”

“It is one of the inevitable downsides of empire,” the Hand said, still regarding them over his folded hands. “The temptation to wield force increases concurrently with the repercussions of doing so. In our many problems, gentlemen—the Wreath, the dwarves, the elves, the last adventurers, the Punaji, even some of the cults—we are left wondering what to do, and specifically, how to avoid making it worse. Exercising the powers at our command does have a tendency to create disruptive ripple effects.”

“You speak as though you have an idea,” Darling observed.

The Hand smiled thinly. “You said something last year, your Grace, which has stuck with me. Sometimes, two problems are the solutions to each other. I think it suits us in this interconnected modern age to act without throwing our weight around, as much as possible, and what better way than by leveraging some of our…fringe allies? Lord Vex.” He shifted his gaze directly to the spymaster. “I understand you have enjoyed some success in working with Professor Tellwyrn.”

“Yes,” Vex said slowly, “largely because I am extremely careful to limit my interactions with her, and especially the situations into which I thrust her student groups. That is a very particular box of tools, which it will not do to upend upon the wrong project.”

“We agree,” said the Hand, nodding. “But it’s not as if Tellwyrn takes orders, anyway; I was hardly proposing to try and enlist her. However, the University’s graduates do represent a pool of significant talent which we have long allowed to go largely untapped.”

“What are you suggesting, exactly?” Panissar demanded, scowling. “That woman is a bad enough influence as is; the last thing we need on top of our troubles is for her to get snippy about the Throne trying to push her around.”

“Indeed, I am familiar with her profile. Consequently, I don’t propose to push.” The Hand smiled thinly. “After all, weren’t we discussing how interconnected entities can influence each other? And she does have problems of her own.”


Toby ordinarily cultivated awareness of his surroundings as a point of personal discipline, but that afternoon, Gabriel had to call his name twice before he jerked his head up and noticed his friend approaching.

“Gabe! Hi!” Toby waved back, a grin breaking across his features. “You’re back!”

“Yeah, I see that makes two of us,” Gabriel said wryly.

“Three of us.”

“Has it occurred to you,” he said to his sword, “that maybe people would talk to you more if you weren’t such an ass to them?”

“It has. I consider it an irrelevant point of data,” Ariel replied primly.

He patted her hilt. “Hush. Seriously, though, what’s on your mind, Toby? It’s been years since I saw you that distracted in public, and that’s back when you were first called by Omnu.”

“Oh, well, nothing that serious,” Toby said. At Gabriel’s encouraging expression, he glanced around. They had met on one of the lower terraces, just below the gazebo; Gabe was coming back from the main stairs down the mountain, and Toby hadn’t been going anywhere in particular. “I’ll…tell you later. Actually, I kind of do want to talk to you about it, Gabe, but it’s a conversation for, uh, someplace less public.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows, but nodded. “Okay, then. Is everything all right?”

“That’s a thorny question,” Toby replied with a wry grin. “It’s no more or less all right than when you left the campus, let’s leave it at that for now. Enough about my maundering, though! How was it? Your first real Vidian holiday! I bet you were a hit in the capital!”

“Uh, actually, they kept me back from the public,” Gabriel said, frowning. By unspoken agreement they fell into step, setting off on a meandering path through the terraces. “Lady Gwenfaer held a private service, pretty much entirely for my benefit though some of the cult’s other muckety-mucks were there, and arranged for me to watch the main public ceremonies from concealment.”

“Oh.” Now Toby frowned. “Well, that’s… I’m sorry. I guess they’ll come around…”

“No, no, no!” Gabe said hastily. “That was my idea. Nobody fought me on it, or anything, it’s just… I was in no way ready to be held up as a pillar of the cult. Man, the more I learn about the faith, the less I can really think of myself as a Vidian. And the more I interact with Vidius himself, the more I get the impression that is exactly the point of this. He’s concerned about…um, corruption in the ranks. I think he has an idea of me as some kind of enforcer. An outside perspective, there to whip people back into shape.”

“…huh,” Toby said after a long pause. “I… I really wish I had something more helpful to say, there, Gabe. That’s just…so very outside the realm of my experience…”

“Yeah, I don’t think Trissiny could help me much with this, either,” Gabriel said with a sigh. “Both your cults think the sun shines out of your respective butts. I appreciate you listening, nonetheless. I’m unprecedented in a lot of ways. Anyhow, it was a good experience, all in all. I’ve never really paid much attention to Doom’s Day before; it’s not like I had anybody to mourn. Dad’s folks were gone by the time I was born, and…” He made a wry expression that tried to be a grin but never quite made it past a grimace. “Yeah, I don’t even know if my mother is alive, but if not, somehow I suspect praying to Vidius for the peace of her soul would end badly for all three of us.”

“Have you ever…wondered?”

“Course I have,” Gabriel said, his eyes straight ahead. He had never talked about his mother; in all the time they’d known each other, it had never come up. “But, um, not enough that I really wanted to know. She isn’t part of my…anything. Someday, I guess I’d like to know what my dad saw in her. You know, what happened. But his perspective is really the only part that I’m curious about. I do not need more demon shit in my life.”

“There has always been a surprising core of wisdom beneath your habitual inanity, Gabriel. It is gratifying to see you making more use of it.”

“Thank you, faithful sidekick,” he said sardonically.

“Did you have a chance to see your dad while you were in the capital?”

“He’s not there, remember? The Church found him a place in Mathenon out of the public eye.”

“Oh!” Toby slapped a hand to his forehead. “For heaven’s sake, I knew that. I’m so sorry—”

“I’m just gonna cut you off there,” Gabriel said, peremptorily holding up a finger. “You are allowed to be distracted and think about your own stuff, man. I know you like to be everybody’s big brother, but sometimes you gotta focus on yourself.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Toby said with a sigh. “I’m sort of tired of focusing on myself right at this moment, though. Got any recent foolishness you want to get off your chest? Y’know, for old time’s sake.”

“Excuse me,” Gabriel said haughtily, “but I am deep amidst a program of personal self-development, and no longer go in for such diversions. I’m a new man, Toby. No more foot-in-mouth half-demon designated comic relief, thank you.”

“You’re not going to mention that you very nearly bedded the High Priestess of your cult?”

Toby came to a halt, turning to stare at him. Gabriel did likewise, rolling his eyes so hard he tilted his head back to bring more sky into their range of view.

“Thank you, Ariel.”

“My pleasure.”

“Gaaaabe,” Toby said warningly.

“Okay, first of all, no part of that was my fault!” Gabriel said defensively, holding up his hands and taking a step backward. “She came on to me. Um…quite aggressively. Honestly, until we were alone in that room I had actually not even made especial note of the fact that the woman is searingly hot.”

“And approximately twice your age.”

“Yeah, true,” Gabriel agreed, a slightly dreamy smile drifting across his face. “But damn, does she wear it well…”

Toby cleared his throat. “And yet…?”

“Yeah, and yet.” Gabe’s expression cleared and he focused again on Toby’s face. “It’s just that… Okay, this may sound odd, but I don’t think Gwenfaer was really seeing me there. I might be reading too much into things, but I am pretty sure she was not remotely interested in Gabriel Arquin, fascinating enchanter-in-training and the hero of many adventures—”

“To give yourself a tremendous amount of credit.”

“But,” Gabriel continued doggedly, “she seemed rather aroused by the thought of the unprecedented paladin of her god, and maybe a bit by the twin taboos of a demonblood who is, as someone made a point of mentioning, about half her age.”

“Really, you picked up on all that?” Toby whistled. “I’m impressed. Not long ago you weren’t at all perceptive about…people.”

“You were going to say ‘women,’ weren’t you,” Gabriel accused.

Toby grinned. “Well, as Trissiny would emphatically remind us, women are people.”

“I think,” Gabriel said more thoughtfully, turning and beginning to walk again, “it’s more that even if I had noticed it, not long ago I wouldn’t have thought of any greater consideration than the possibility to going to bed with a gorgeous woman who was into me. It’s hard to say exactly what’s changed…”

“It is called ‘maturity,’ and it’s bound to be uncomfortable for you at first, all things considered.”

“Could you stop helping, please?” he said in exasperation.

“No,” Ariel replied. “I can’t stop helping and I can’t stop expressing myself without regard for people’s feelings. You are a naturally occurring sapient and can evolve and modify your behavior. I am a constructed intelligence. My personality is rigidly defined.”

He grimaced. “I…yeah, sorry. I guess that’s kind of unfair of me.”

“Yes, it is. My feelings are not particularly hurt; given your general pattern of thoughtlessness you treat me with a surprising degree of consideration overall. However, I am still bound to point it out when you’re being foolish. For your own good, you see.”

“With friends like these,” Gabriel said to Toby, “who needs the ravening hordes of Hell?”

Toby’s answering laugh was interrupted by the rapid arrival of Chase Masterson.

“Whoah, guys!” he said, skidding to a halt after having pelted down the path toward them. “You may wanna clear the vicinity, it is about to get dangerous out here. Oh, hey, Gabe, you’re back!”

“What did you do?” Gabriel demanded.

Chase planted a hand on his chest and looked shocked and wounded. “I? What did I do? Gabriel. After all these years, after all we’ve meant to each other! Why do you say these things just to hurt me?”

“Because,” Gabriel said bitingly, “you came up grinning. I’ve only ever seen you grin when someone else’s day was about to be ruined.”

“Are you gonna let him talk to me like that?” Chase demanded of Toby, who shrugged.

“Well, he could stand to be a little politer, but he isn’t really wrong.”

“Now, that is just unfair,” Chase complained. “This is scurrilous character assassination and you both know it. I also grin when people’s days are in the process of being ruined, or when I happen to reflect upon a particularly impressive ruination which has already transpired. Honestly, I thought you guys knew me a little better than that. This is just hurtful, is what it is.”

“My gods,” Gabriel marveled, “he’s still talking.”

“Just for that,” Chase continued, again grinning, “I’m not gonna warn you about—oop, too late anyway.”

Both turned to look the way he had come, and their eyes widened in alarm.

Even without knowing the full situation, what they could glean from the spectacle of a visibly incensed Professor Ekoi chasing a gleefully cackling Professor Rafe up the path told a frightening story.

“Ohh, this is not gonna be good,” Toby whispered.

“Good is such a relative concept,” Chase replied, his grin now stretching so far it looked downright painful.

“Guys! Kids! Students!” Rafe skidded to a halt much as Chase had done moments before. “I don’t suppose any of you speak Sifanese?”

Ekoi came to a stop right after him, ears flat back, fangs bared and tail bristling; Rafe immediately spun around Toby and cowered behind him.

“What the hell did you do?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Professor Ekoi? Are you all right?”

Ekoi transferred her livid green stare to him, prompting him to take a step back, then hissed a few syllables in her lilting native tongue.

“Um, Professor,” Toby said hesitantly. “There’s not a doubt in my mind he fully deserves whatever you’re planning to do, but…can you please wait until I’m not in the way?”

“Don’t move,” Chase cautioned. “Don’t even twitch. Moving might prompt her to strike.”

“Urusai!” Ekoi snarled at him.

Chase immediately buckled to the ground, prostrating himself before her. She actually appeared to calm slightly, at least enough to look quizzical at this display.

Then, with a characteristic soft pop, help arrived.

“One afternoon,” Tellwyrn said incredulously. “That’s all. I leave you alone for one afternoon. Should I be disappointed, or gratified no one’s blown up the damn mountain? In hindsight it’s all so murky.”

Ekoi rounded on her and began chattering rapidly in Sifanese. Tellwyrn focused on her, narrowing her eyes, and occasionally replying shortly in the same language.

“Uh, what happened?” Gabriel asked hesitantly when a lull finally fell in the tirade. “I’ve never seen her this mad. It’s like she’s forgotten Tanglish.”

Tellwyrn sighed heavily, turning to give Rafe one of her foulest glares. “Kaisa does not sully her graceful tongue with our barbarous gutterspeech. Universal translation is one of the effects of her inherent magic. Consequently, when some stampeding fuckwit slips her an anti-magic potion, she finds herself disadvantaged in several rather important respects.”

“Whoah, whoah, wait, stop,” Chase said, straightening and gazing up at Rafe in awe. “You…you started a prank war with a kitsune?”

“Seriously, Professor,” Toby said over his shoulder, “even by your standards, that is needlessly suicidal.”

“Why are you kids still here?” Tellwyrn barked.

“Because he’s got a grip on me,” Toby replied.

“And I’m not abandoning my oldest friend to this madness,” Gabriel added.

Grinning insanely, Chase spread his arms wide. “Need you ask?”

“You know, there really is a very good explanation for all this,” Rafe said, poking his head out from behind Toby’s. “I’m awesome, she’s hot, and we are both deeply annoying people. Something like this was practically predestined. It’s just math.”

He and Toby both shied back as Ekoi thrust her face forward at them, baring all her fangs. She spat a few syllables, then whirled on her heel and stalked back the way she had come.

“I suppose I should be grateful,” Tellwyrn said with a heavy sigh. “Admestus, you are going to make this right. You do not provoke a kitsune that way, especially not on my campus; this goes above and beyond your general run of imbecilic behavior into a realm I can’t afford to tolerate.”

“Fear not!” Rafe proclaimed, bounding out from behind Toby (now that the danger had passed) and striking a pose. “If there is one man in all the realm who can calm the affronted feelings of yon lady, tis I, the glorious Professor Rafe! Gaze upon my manly ingenuity and bask, mere puny mortals!”

“She took your pants,” Gabriel noted.

“Nonsense, her magic’s—son of a bitch.” Rafe stared down at his legs. “Even with her magic dampened. Hot damn, that is impressive! I do believe I’m going to marry that woman.”

“She, um…appears to hate your guts, Professor,” Toby pointed out.

Rafe barked a laugh. “All the great romances start that way! Ask Teal.”

“Admestus,” Tellwyrn said very evenly, “if you can swear to me that those don’t belong to a student, I promise to now and in the future withhold all comment on your choice of ladies’ bloomers as an undergarment.”

Rafe again bent forward to thoughtfully study his bare legs and the lacy scrap of clothing stretched far too tightly across his groin.

“…what kinds of comments would these be?”

Tellwyrn clapped a hand over her eyes, glasses and all, repeated the short phrase which had been Ekoi’s parting comment, and teleported out.

“’Bakka inoo,’” Chase enunciated carefully. “I gotta remember that one, it sounds nasty. I don’t suppose any of you have a clue what it means?”

“Library’s that way!” Rafe proclaimed, pointing. “And now, if you boys will excuse me, I must away to plot the mollification and subsequent seduction of my exquisite bride-to-be!”

“Excuse me,” Toby said sharply, “but do those belong to a student?”

“Hell if I know,” Rafe replied with a broad grin, “Ekoi put them there. I tell you, she’s the perfect woman! Ohh, this is gonna be a courtship for the ages! ONWARD TO GLORY!”

He took off down the path at a run, trailing maniacal laughter behind him.

“How old is he?” Gabriel asked. “I mean, I know he’s a half-elf and they have a longer lifespan. Do they age more slowly?”

“Really?” Toby exclaimed. “That’s what you’re most curious about?”

“I think I follow his line of thought,” Chase said solemnly. “The question is: why the hell has nobody killed him yet?”

“Yes.” Gabriel pointed at him. “That.”

“Excuse me.”

While they were speaking, Ravana had arrived, carrying a few books and now glancing back up the path in the direction Rafe had gone.

“Could one of you gentlemen kindly explain to me why Professor Rafe is dashing pell-mell through the campus, wearing my underthings?”

Gabriel heaved a sigh. “Man, it’s good to be home.”

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